By Josh Farmer, Contributing Writer
Robert Wickens claimed his first Verizon IndyCar series podium in his first oval start after leading a chunk of Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix.
The driver of the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports led 44 laps and paced the field with less than 10 laps to go before giving way to Josef Newgarden within the final three laps.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “All I wanted to do was finish every lap of my oval debut. So, to come home P2 and even lead tonight, you can never expect that as a rookie. It’s so hard here, but the team did a great job.”
Wickens, who led 69 laps at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, started the 250-lap event in sixth place and ran inside the top five for the first half of the race. While running fifth on lap 115, Wickens’ Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) crew gambled and brought him in for his first pitstop, five laps before race leader Will Power pitted.
The 29-year-old from Toronto, Ontario and SPM teammate James Hinchcliffe moved to the front for the next 20 laps, with Wickens taking the lead on lap 149. The former DTM Racer paced the next 20 laps before making his final stop on lap 178. He resumed the race in third as Josef Newgarden and Ed Jones moved into first and second by pitting early.
Wickens settled into third until Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jones crashed on lap 229 while running in second. Newgarden pitted for fresh rubber, but Wickens stayed out and retook the lead.
Newgarden quickly passed Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe on the lap 243 restart and set his sights on Wickens. Wickens hugged the bottom lane and initially kept Newgarden at bay before the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion took the lead in Turn 1 with three laps to go.
Having finished second, Wickens admitted that he gave it everything he had without going over the limit.
“I did as much as I could without crashing both of us, so I don’t think there’s any stopping him,” he said. “I think once he built up the courage to just out brake me around the outside, it was pretty easy.”
Wickens admitted after the race that he would have been satisfied with finishing in the top five and scoring a podium was icing on the cake.
“My goal coming into this was to finish every lap,” he said. “Even on that last restart, leading, knowing there is only the three of us that stayed out, my thought process didn’t really change. Even if I finished fifth, I would have been kind of well a little bit disappointed but still happy that I got even a top five on my first oval race. I feel like I’m setting the bar a little bit high for myself. But I never would have expected the first two races to go as well as they did.”