By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Well, he certainly was the driver to watch at Barber Motorsports Park and Sunday proved it for Josef Newgarden as he won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the third race in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
The newest driver at Team Penske, The Tennessee native considers Barber to be his home track, and by scoring his second win and third podium in the last three years at Barber, showed that he’s got the inside scoop on what it takes to be successful.
The critical move of the race happen at Newgarden’s favorite passing spot. Newgarden managed to sneak past Scott Dixon on Lap 68 heading into the final complex of corners and Dixon wasn’t to thrilled at leaving the door open.
“I saw him come. I was so loose at that point, I tried turning down. The car was so loose, I thought he was going to give me a little bit more room on the edge, but he did a hell of a job,” Dixon said.
“Yeah, it was just bad placement on my behalf. You know, I’ll be thinking about that one for a little while,” Dixon added.
Newgarden thought differently of the move.
“You know, I think I snuck up on him is what helped get it done. It was early on the restart. He was focused forward on the traffic in front of him. So was I. But I think I was able to capitalize on him when he wasn’t looking, just got a nose in the door.
I tried to push him offline so he didn’t have any grip. That seemed to work out. I got him offline and out of position enough to where I could take advantage,” Newgarden said.
What also helped the victor was his tire strategy. Newgarden started the race on the primary black sidewall tires and was able to get to fourth place before pitting and putting on a set of the Firestone option red sidewall tires that give more grip. Newgarden was confident in his strategy.
“I think for us, it helped us move up actually, oddly enough in the first stint. I think the reds weren’t that much of an advantage at the start of the race like they normally would be. You generally don’t have as much grip in the beginning of a stint on the blacks,” Newgarden said.
Newgarden was able to get his tires up to operating temperature quickly, leapfrogging Dixon and teammate Helio Castroneves to get to second place. Newgarden lost a position to Dixon during the last cycle of pit stops but after getting around him, racing luck intervened.
Teammate Will Power was leading the race handily until his left rear tire started to deflate. Power stayed out as long as he could but knew the tire was going down and pitted, handing the race lead to Newgarden.
For Newgarden, the next challenge was holding Dixon off. The 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner was using all of his push to pass boost to put enormous pressure on Newgarden but no mistakes were made. Dixon had all the reason to push Newgarden as Sunday’s runner-up finish was Dixon’s seventh podium finish at Barber in eight races with no wins.
For the 2011 Indy Lights champion, the pressure was on in another way. A new sponsor was signed to adorn his No. 2 Chevrolet as Fitzgerald Glider Kits announced a partnership with Team Penske and delivering them a victory was the best result he could have done.
“I told them, I don’t know how rare this is. This is their first race with IndyCar, and they get a win. It’s been very cool to have Fitzgerald on with us,” Newgarden said.
“What’s even cooler, these are Tennessee guys. I’m from Nashville. They’re not far away from me. They’re like an hour east.
“It’s great to have those guys come down to Alabama and see a race and get a victory just kind of caps it off. I don’t know what they’re going to expect now when they come to the Indy 500 with Juan Pablo [Montoya], but I think it’s going to be a victory. They told me before I rolled out, We’ll see you in victory lane. Okay, I know where to find you then.”
In his third race with team Penske, Newgarden scored a win quicker than any of the current full time teammates for Team Penske had done. Will Power didn’t win with Team Penske until his fifth race with the team, Simon Pagenaud took the checkered flag in his 19th race with the team while Castroneves won in his seventh race.
Not bad for someone who didn’t score his first IndyCar win until his 55th race.