By David Morgan, Associate Editor
FORT WORTH, Tex. – Thrice as nice.
For the third time in his career, Josef Newgarden found himself in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway, holding off a hard-charging Pato O’Ward down the stretch in Sunday’s PPG 375 to earn himself another cowboy hat.
In what was one of the most hotly contested races at the 1.5-mile oval in recent years, deciding which driver would come away victorious was up in the air from the time the green flag dropped all the way to the checkered.
Both Newgarden and O’Ward had their dominant portions of the race, with Newgarden leading 123 laps to O’Ward’s 91, but it was the final stint of the race that was the determining factor on which of these two drivers would come out on top.
The two drivers slotted into first and second following the final restart and were bound and determined to settle it amongst themselves, running wheel to wheel lap after lap as the finish drew nearer. It would come down to who could time the pass for the lead the best when the checkered flag flew.
Though it looked to be headed toward another photo finish, a crash by Romain Grosjean with two laps to go ended that notion, bringing out the caution and delivering Newgarden the win for the second straight year over O’Ward.
“Great car. I don’t know what else to say other than our car was fast. That’s what made the difference,” Newgarden said. “I sort of de-tuned it middle of the race. Pato ran up on us, got by us, was walking away. We got the tuning back, which was great. Reversed everything that I asked for. Got it into a happy window and were in position at the end.
“Team Chevy, PPG, a great weekend for us, great team effort. We’re on the board. We are on the board. We were not on the board leaving St. Pete. We’re on the board now.”
With Sunday’s finish, O’Ward starts the season with back-to-back runner-up results and though he would have loved to be able to win in the season opener at St. Pete or at his home track in Texas, the Arrow McLaren driver was not disappointed with the way his 2023 season has started off.
“I had the timing right,” O’Ward said of the finish. “The lap before we crossed the line, my nose was slightly in front of his. There was no way it was going to finish in single file. Yeah, racing gods had other plans.
“I have to say to the guys it’s been a hell of a start to the year. I had a rocket. Like, I don’t think there’s another way to put it.”
Alex Palou brought his Chip Ganassi Racing Honda home in third, followed by David Malukas in fourth, and six-time series champion Scott Dixon rounding out the top-five.
The race featured 26 lead changes amongst eight different drivers, with two and three-wide racing being the order of the day.
While there was the excitement of the frantic racing, the treacherous nature of racing at high speeds on the Texas oval also saw five different caution periods that slowed the race at various points throughout the 250-lap event.
The first caution came when Takuma Sato found himself in no man’s land in the top of Turn 2 and made impact with the outside wall there and then again in the inside wall on the backstretch, ending his debit race with Chip Ganassi Racing just 48 laps in.
During that caution, a secondary incident took place on pit road when Alexander Rossi and Kyle Kirkwood, who replaced him at Andretti Autosport, made contact as Rossi was exiting his pit box and Kirkwood was entering his.
The contact sent Kirkwood spinning sideways into his pit box and damaged the right front of Rossi’s car, dropping him laps down as his Arrow McLaren crew worked to get his car back on track. To add insult to injury, Rossi would be penalized by IndyCar for the incident and he would have to serve a drive-through penalty for an unsafe release.
Rossi was livid on the radio afterwards as he could do nothing but log laps to the finish where he would be scored in 24th place.
“We had a really strong car. That’s obvious with qualifying and Pato’s result. It got taken away from us in the first stop to no fault of our own,” Rossi said. “It was an inconsistent ruling from INDYCAR and very disappointing from Kyle. It was a wasted day for the No. 7 VELO Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, but the car was good and that’s all that matters.”
Kirkwood wouldn’t get away from Texas unscathed either as a mechanical issue sidelined him on lap 100.
“We had a rear right upright failure,” Kirkwood said. “It just started smoking there. Started getting way too hot and it’s kind of in a meltdown phase right now. So we’re gonna go change it and hope some other guys don’t make the end of the race either. Try and get some position later on, but we’ll see what happens.
“It’s unfortunate, felt like we were definitely picking up some pace after that yellow there. Was making some passes happen, and then all of a sudden started hemorrhaging time and that was it for us.”
Kirkwood added his perspective on the incident with Rossi and explained that he didn’t think the collision between the two was his fault.
“I asked the team if that was my fault. They said no,” Kirkwood said. “We were coming into the pit. Two guys went out in front of me. I had to let them go. He wasn’t even in sight for me. So, I think they just launched him too early in my mind. Nothing I can do about it, I don’t think.”
Past halfway, a flurry of cautions on lap 179, 210, 233, and 249 helped to keep the race pace elevated and took the fuel mileage equation out of the picture for the race leaders.
Polesitter Felix Rosenqvist crashed in Turn 4 on lap 179 in a similar incident to Sato’s earlier in the race, with rookie Sting Ray Robb crashing out on lap 210.
Devlin DeFrancesco and Graham Rahal collided in Turn 3 on lap 223 when DeFrancesco’s car shot up the race track from the apron right into the path of Rahal’s oncoming Honda, which sent Rahal airborne momentarily before both drivers slammed into the outside wall.
Then came the final crash with two laps to go in which Grosjean crashed in Turn 2 to bring the race to a premature end.
The NTT IndyCar Series will take a two week break before getting back into action on the Streets of Long Beach, with the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach scheduled for 3:00 pm ET on April 16.
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