By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – What a difference a day makes.
After struggling throughout the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, including a dismal 16th place qualifying effort, Josef Newgarden was back to his typical form in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, though it took a “creative” effort from the Hendersonville, Tennessee native to make it a reality.
“I’m happy about it,” said the driver of the Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet. “It’s really good for points. Without the caution, we would have finished eighth, so we picked up four more spots than we were going to get without that. It’s a good day relative to where we started. We’ve got to start up higher. If we’re going to win a race, we’ve got to start in the top-five.
“We had to get creative and that’s about all we could do…We needed that caution. That’s about our potential today was a top-five. That’s about all we could hope for, I think, and we got it done.”
Newgarden has been strong at Barber in recent years, racking up three wins and a podium finish in the last four starts, so when the weekend started at the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course, he was one of the drivers that was expected to contend for the victory. However, the opposite happened and a lack of speed left the 28-year old and his team scratching their heads.
Failing to post a time better than 14th in the first three practice sessions of the weekend, an expected turnaround in qualifying didn’t come to fruition and Newgarden was left with a mid-pack start that he would have to battle back from at a track that is known for being tough to pass on.
Despite the setbacks that had plagued the team for the first two days of the race weekend, there was some light at the end of the tunnel on Sunday, when Newgarden posted the third fastest time in morning warmup, giving the team some hope they could rebound and score a decent finish on the day.
Slowly advancing through the field when the green flag flew in the 90-lap race, Newgarden made his first appearance in the top-10 after the first round of green flag pit stops and would stay there for the remainder of the day, except during pit stop cycles.
As the race progressed, Newgarden seemed to be on his way to a finish somewhere inside the top-10, but on lap 58, the caution flag flew for the stranded Graham Rahal machine and Max Chilton’s impact with the tire barrier at pit entry, giving him a boost in his chances of scoring a higher finish.
With the alternate Firestone Reds mounted on his Chevrolet, Newgarden set his sights on the cars ahead of him in the running order, picking off James Hinchcliffe before turning his attention to Alexander Rossi.
It took a bold move to get past Rossi, but on lap 86, Newgarden made it happen, taking over the fourth position and holding on to the finish to stay at the top of the points standings heading to next weekend’s race in Long Beach.
“I didn’t mean to push Rossi out as much as I did,” Newgarden said of the move. “I had a good run on him and he went pretty deep into the corner and then I locked the front up and just went into him a little too aggressively. Honestly, he gave me a ton of room there and let me do my thing, so hats off to him for making it work.”