ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Entering the weekend of the annual NTT IndyCar Series season-opening race, 2017 IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden quipped that the pressure was on at Team Penske after the fast start the NASCAR side of the operation has enjoyed this year.
Team owner Roger Penske even mentioned it Friday at St. Petersburg that his NASCAR team – which has seen Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano earn victories – is putting the heat on his IndyCar team to live up to the fast start.
Newgarden did his part in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, leading 60 laps in the 110-lap race, including the final 29 to score the 11th win of his IndyCar career.
He defeated defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon by 2.8998 seconds. Newgarden’s Team Penske teammate Will Power was third, giving Chevrolet two of the top three positions.
The season kicked off under ideal conditions – sunny skies with temperatures in the 80s and a jam-packed crowd.
“I’m so pumped that we were able to execute today,” Newgarden said. “I was really bummed yesterday. I thought we had a good qualifying position and it was a great team effort being 1-2, but I thought we had pole speed, and I didn’t fully execute on that qualifying lap.
“I feel like we executed today. We were very patient in the beginning of the race. We had a right-to-left different tire strategy again today, and it really paid off. I actually think it’s what helped us create the opportunity and we just waited for that, and once it was there, we switched it up, we went to Reds, probably one of the only cars on Reds at that point and they were new and it really panned out.
“I’m so proud of the team. The engine was great. Team Chevy did a great job this week, had everything we needed. Everything was really solid. We found our footing yesterday and finished it off right today.”
As for Team Penske, it now has five wins in three different series – the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, NTT IndyCar Series and Supercars Championship – as 82-year-old team owner Roger Penske’s operation is off to a brilliant start.
“It’s great on one hand but it adds a level of intensity, because you see everyone else in the organization,” Newgarden said. “They are all doing well. You don’t want to be the one group that’s not doing well. At the same time, if we weren’t doing well, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. That’s going to happen.
“We’re going to yo-yo up and down from a performance standpoint within our organization, but you don’t want to be that one group that’s falling behind. So far we’ve started off well.
“They are stout, man. It’s across the board. Whatever Penske puts their efforts in, they are going to make the most of it. They have a strong hold on NASCAR it looks like at the minute with this package and they are doing a great job. The Supercars, they have been stout the last couple years with our drivers over there and IndyCar, we’ve teetered back and forth and this year I’m hoping we can have something closer to 2017 when we won the championship and I think we have a good start to that.”
His teammate Power started on the pole and got off to a clean start, leading the first 12 laps of the race before Swedish rookie Felix Rosenqvist passed him in turn one during a lap-13 restart. Rosenqvist would keep the No. 10 NTT Data Honda in front for 31 laps before finishing fourth, just ahead of Alexander Rossi’s Honda.
“It was an interesting race,” Rosenqvist said. “It was perfect proof to never give up. I started off the race pretty good and then we faded off a little bit. That is where the experienced boys showed how it is really done.
“P-4, good points for first race, we had the fastest lap so big thanks to Chip Ganassi Racing to give me a good car.
“It was fantastic. I qualified third, led the race a couple of times so it showed we had a good package. I have a lot to learn, still, but that’s a great starting point.”
There were two cautions for 11 laps, the first when Ryan Hunter-Reay’s turbocharger blew up on lap 22. The second was for a two-car incident involving Matheus Leist and Ed Jones in turn nine on Lap 26.
Dixon tried to make a charge at the end, but Newgarden was in firm control of the outcome.
“Well, it yo-yoed a lot,” Newgarden said. “We were five seconds in front, then nine, then seven, then five, then three, then two, then back to three. It yo-yoed a lot and really, all of it was traffic for the most part. I think we had the pace for him, for the most part, all day. It was just about conserving the gap.
“Where we ripped a big one was just on Red tires, and when we went out on brand new Reds we were able to open up a huge chunk and it was just really good timing and positioning and once we established that gap, it was about managing it, really. We didn’t have to blow it wide open and we didn’t need to see it shrink too quickly but we let it seesaw back and forth how it needed to.
“It was a real dogfight. It was about managing the traffic, your tires and the chess match at the end.”
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