By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
NEWTON, Iowa — With Josef Newgarden out front and dominating, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ annual trip to Iowa Speedway looked like 2016 all over again through 250 laps. Newgarden looked poised to win his second-straight race, in similarly dominant fashion to June’s Road America romp.
Instead he ended the race outside of the podium.
Newgarden led a race-high 229 laps in Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300, lapping as high as fifth on the field through a caution-free opening 139 laps. The Tennessean trapped points rivals Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi a lap down and soared out to a lead of more than eight seconds.
The caution flag eliminated the defending IndyCar champion’s advantage, but after the lap 150 restart Newgarden again held the lead. The surging James Hinchcliffe kept the hap within six seconds, ebbing and flowing through lapped traffic. But Newgarden appeared up to the task of holding the lead.
That is, until the final 50 laps.
Newgarden’s challenging time navigating traffic – and particularly passing teammate Will Power – in the race’s waning stages allowed Hinchcliffe to close the gap. The Canadian took advantage of Newgarden’s struggles to soar into the lead on Lap 256, and immediately set about driving off into the Iowa sunset.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “We just didn’t have it at the end. Sometimes you can’t forecast that completely you know we put on the car what we thought was going to be right for today and I think for the first half of the race, it was.
“I thought we had a great car and you know it just went away from us.”
A lap 294 caution for debris from contact between Ed Carpenter and Takuma Sato gave the field hope for a final sprint to the checkered flag. Seeing an opportunity to contend for the win fi the race went back green, Newgarden’s Team Penske team called his No. 1 Chevrolet to pit road for four tires.
The decision to pit with so few laps remaining was a strategic gamble. In the end the call didn’t pay off. The race stayed under caution through Lap 300, meaning Newgarden never got the chance to overtake the drivers that stayed out.
After dominating the majority of the afternoon, Newgarden’s day ended just off of the podium in fourth. The net result was a disappointment given the run that had preceded it, but Newgarden had little to complaining about after gaining on championship rivals Rossi, Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay – all of whom finished ninth or worse. The 27-year-old left Iowa second in the standings, within 31 points of Dixon for the championship lead.
“You don’t know how that is going to play out,” Newgarden said of the call. “You try and make the best bet possible, but the team did a great job.
“I think we picked up some valuable points. Look, we will chalk it up to it was a great day what could have been, but wasn’t, so we will go on to the next one and try and make it happen.”