By David Morgan, Associate Editor
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Qualifying has been the bane of Josef Newgarden’s existence in recent weeks, but Saturday, the tide turned in his favor with a lap fast enough to score the pole for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Still mathematically eligible for the NTT IndyCar Series championship, the elation among the No. 1 team was palpable, with Newgarden emerging from his Team Penske Chevrolet following his pole-winning run with arms stretched upwards, yelling “F*** yeah!” to his team, knowing he was still in the fight despite the long odds.
Newgarden noted his reaction was just him channeling the energy from a fan that has been in the paddock this weekend, yelling in excitement to all of the drivers.
“I was pumped,” Newgarden said. “We’ve had a guy roaming around here all weekend that’s just been yelling, like in excitement.
“Dude, he has jacked me up. I just heard him the entire qualifying session. I tried to embody him as I got out of the car. I think I successfully did that. I apologize if anyone heard any of that. But I was pretty excited.
“It’s been a hard couple of weeks, like it said. The last couple qualifyings have been demoralizing. To bounce back and show our form is very gratifying. Very pleased for our team and that’s what we saw.”
Newgarden topped the board with a lap of one minute, 8.224 seconds, with seven-time champion Scott Dixon joining him on the front row. Helio Castroneves will start third, followed by Simon Pagenaud, Felix Rosenqvist, and Romain Grosjean rounding out the top-six.
The top-two in the championship race, Palou and O’Ward failed to advance into the Fast Six, timing in 10th and eighth, respectively, for the title-deciding race on Sunday.
All three rounds of qualifying had some drama that went along with it, starting right off the bat when the first group of drivers hit the track during the opening round.
Newgarden was the fastest in the first group, with both Palou and O’Ward scrubbing the wall during their runs. Despite the contact, both teams were able to get their cars repaired and continue on in qualifying.
The end of the first group of qualifying also featured a red flag just as time expired when Jack Harvey wound up in the tires in Turn 8. Will Power was on a flyer behind him and was unable to avoid Harvey’s stranded car, as the contact damaged both the left side of the car and the rear wing. Power’s team originally thought they would be done for after the incident, but they were able to get the car back in racing shape for the next round.
In the second group of qualifying, the drama came courtesy of Colton Herta, who had been the fastest in both practice sessions leading into time trials. After putting down the fastest lap early on while on the standard Firestone tires, the Andretti Autosport speedster scrubbed the wall, wiping the lettering off the left side tires. Switching over to the alternate reds with time winding down, he found the wall yet again and didn’t run a fast enough lap to advance.
Though the team had some hope that he’d be able to move on when the Group 2 results were under review, the sanctioning body ultimately ruled against any penalty and he finished 7th in the round. He’ll have his work cut out for him on Sunday, starting mid-pack in 14th.
“It was a handful until it eventually wasn’t bent anymore and just broke,” Herta said of how his car drove after the contact. “It was my fault, unfortunately. It’ll make for an interesting race though. We’re starting 14th with two sets of new reds, so could be a good thing. A little charge to the front tomorrow.”
Once qualifying entered the Fast 12, the drama continued, with another review of the results by the time the session was over. Castroneves was quick early on, with Grosjean topping the board with a minute and a half remaining. Shortly thereafter, Power’s repaired Chevrolet suffered a transmission issue, leaving him stranded in Turn 10.
Power’s misfortune caused a local yellow in Turn 9, meaning the drivers still out on track would be unable to complete a lap at speed. Despite this, a number of drivers put up their fastest laps and moved into the top-six, throwing the results into review for several minutes.
Both the Palou and O’Ward camps held out hope that the review would allow their drivers to move up if those drivers that advanced after the yellow would have been penalized. That did not come to fruition, leaving the two at the back end of the top-10 when the green flag flies on Sunday.
“We have literal data that shows that at least two of the cars that didn’t get penalized kept going quickly in the yellow flag,” O’Ward explained. “I don’t know. Maybe rules don’t apply the last race of the season when everything’s at stake.
“It just sucks. Sucks that we’re stuck there because we should have transferred. We had the car to fight it. I don’t know if for pole, but we definitely had a car to be in the Fast 6 and start within the first two rows.
“I’m still waiting on the explanation, just like you and everybody else. But doubt I’ll get an explanation.”
During the review, Palou’s team told him to climb back in the car to be ready just in case the review went their way, but Palou noted that he didn’t expect that to happen based on where they were scored beforehand.
“I knew we were 10th and that there was only four cars or three cars in front of us that passed the yellow. Even if they reviewed everything, we were not going to make it,” Palou said.
“But still, I mean, you have to be there ready just in case, right? You never know. Yeah, it was a bit confusing. I think we had lots of those moments this year. Yeah, that’s how it goes.”
The final round saw Castroneves as the fastest early on, much like he did in the Fast 12, but as time expired, it was Newgarden that streaked around the Long Beach street course to bring home the pole.
After timing in second, Dixon thought he had a shot at taking down Newgarden for the top spot, but fell short of that goal. Dixon noted that his lap was impeded by Castroneves, but the Brazilian disputed that fact afterwards.
“The car in qualifying was really good,” said Dixon. “A bit bummed. Helio totally screwed us on that last lap there. I think we definitely had enough speed to be right there for the pole. Obviously, we didn’t improve enough just because we caught him throughout that lap.”
“There was no way,” Castroneves retorted. “I had hot tires. I was full power. In fact, that’s why I did my lap. I think he’s misjudged the perception of what it was. I was in total control. There was no way in hell that we were in front of anybody.”
With the field now set for the 85-lap race, only morning warmup remains at 9:00 am Pacific time Sunday, followed by the green flag for the season finale at 12:45 pm, with a champion to be decided by day’s end.