AVONDALE, Ariz. — It started off slow with single-file racing, leading some to fear the new aerodynamic package for the Verizon IndyCar Series wasn’t suited for the short oval that is ISM Raceway.
But Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix ended up in a thrilling battle between three of the top young drivers in the series.
In a race where Firestone celebrated its 500thIndyCar victory since it returned to the series in 1995, Josef Newgarden’s victory was sealed when Team Penske president Tim Cindric called him into the pits for fresh tires during the final stop with 19 laps to go even though he was the leader of the race.
Leading contenders Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi decided track position was more valuable and they both stayed on track with race worn tires.
With fresh Firestones on Newgarden’s Chevrolet, Wickens did his best to hold him off but Newgarden made the race-winning pass with four laps to go. Newgarden, the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, drove to the win by 2.9946 seconds over Wickens Honda and gave Firestone its 500thvictory since it returned to IndyCar competition in 1995. Scott Pruett gave Firestone its first when he defeated Al Unser Jr. in the Michigan 500 that year.
“If it wasn’t a good race, I hope we saved it at the end with a pretty good finish,” Newgarden said.
The race featured 279 passes throughout the field and 12 lead changes among nine different drivers. Many of those lead changes, however, were during green flag pit stops.
By comparison, last year’s race featured 139 passes.
After a disappointing start to the season at St. Petersburg where all three Team Penske cars finished poorly by Penske standards, Newgarden was able to get a victory in the second race of the season as he defends his championship from 2017.
“We got one today,” said Newgarden, who finished seventh at St. Pete. “We had a great car. I don’t know that I was able to drive it to a victory tonight. I didn’t feel like… I felt like a podium contender. It was probably more on me, I just couldn’t get the balance into the car, but when you can win on a night like that, that shows the strength of the team and if we can keep doing that, capitalizing on nights like this, we are going to be just fine for 2018.”
After leading 69 laps in his IndyCar Series debut only to get spun out by Rossi on the restart at St. Pete, Wickens had a blast with is second place finish after leading 44 laps Saturday night.
“My goal coming into this was to finish every lap,” Wickens 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.
“Hopefully we can get our season going now.”