ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – Josef Newgarden had never had much success at St. Pete before this year. His best finish was seventh which occurred last season in a race that Team Penske struggled at.
This weekend, Newgarden was the top driver.
He was second in practice on Saturday morning, then took that speed to qualify his No. 2 Chevrolet on the front row for Sunday’s season opener of the NTT IndyCar Series. With a fast car and a great pit call made by Tim Cindric, Newgarden took his car to victory lane in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete.
Newgarden, led a race high 60 of 110 laps en route to his 11th career Indy Car victory. The win came via a key pit call when he let all the leaders pit on their second round of stops. Newgarden, stayed out longer and took the lead on Lap 52. He’d pit four laps later and go on Firestone Reds and came back out in the lead.
He’d remain there as he knew with quicker tires but faster fall off, he’d have to pit quicker than others on this stint. It worked.
Newgarden, pulled out to a huge lead because of the tires and despite pitting for the final time on Lap 80, he had such an advantage that he reinherited the lead on Lap 82. He’d remain there until the end earning earning his eighth win in 35 starts since joining Team Penske.
Scott Dixon finished runner-up for the fourth time of his career in St. Pete with a second place finish in his No. 9 Honda. Dixon, passed Will Power near the midway mark and held onto the second spot for the final half of the race.
Power, came home third in his No. 12 Chevrolet for his third podium in his last five St. Pete starts. Rookie Felix Rosenqvist led 31 laps in an impressive performance. The Sweden native brought his No. 10 Honda home fourth.
Alexander Rossi rounded out the top five in his No. 27 Honda.
The race only had two cautions for 11 laps which is why we didn’t see any flukes.
Here are some takeaways.
Newgarden Proving His Worth With Penske
Everyone questioned what would happen if Newgarden drove for Ganassi or Penske. In his first 52 starts with Sarah Fisher, he had no wins and just two podiums. In his last 35 starts since joining Team Penske, he has won eight times.
In 32 starts between two years with Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden won three times. That put his name on the map. That led him to his shot with Penske in which he’s excelling.
Honda Engines Fail 2 Favorites
Heading into Sunday’s season opener, two of the top favorites to land in victory lane at St. Pete had to be Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Bourdais, won this race the last two years and closed 2018 with four top six finishes over the final five races. Despite starting in the back due to not making a qualifying lap on Saturday, it didn’t cause panic. See, the last two years, Bourdais started 21st and 14th respectively in this race. He’d still land in victory lane anyways.
So, his 19th place starting spot wasn’t going to break him.
Then, there’s Hunter-Reay. He was starting fifth and had closed 2018 with a second place run in the penultimate race at Portland and won the finale in Sonoma. In practice this weekend, he was in the top two in all three sessions.
But, by Lap 20, both of their engines had expired.
Bourdais’ blew on his No. 18 Honda on Lap 12. He had just pit a few laps earlier too. He was credited with a last place finish (24th). Eight laps later, Hunter-Reay, after pitting a few laps prior too, saw his engine expire on the front stretch ending his day with a 23th place run. The Andretti Autosport driver entered this weekend’s race with five consecutive top seven finishes in St. Pete and six in his last eight starts. Now, his bad luck from 2018 carries over into 2019 too.
Overall, four Honda drivers had problems on Sunday.
Penske’s Street Course Improvement
Over the offseason, the main thing that Team Penske tried to improve upon was their street course program. See, over the last two years, they were 1-for-10 in street course wins. They were among the best on superspeedway, short ovals and road courses, but street circuits kept them from really contending for last year’s championship.
Want to win in 2019? Get better on street courses.
Their improvement showed the last two days of the weekend. They struggled in both practice sessions on Friday but the work that they did overnight paid off. On Saturday morning, all three cars were in the top five. In qualifying, they swept the front row.
In the race, they dominated in putting all three cars in the top seven. They didn’t do that once a year ago. In this race last year for example, they finished seventh (Newgarden), 10th (Power) and 13th (Pagenaud).
Penske drivers led 77 of the 110 laps overall including taking two of the three podium spots.
Penske/Ganassi Battle For Title?
Last year was a rare year in IndyCar. It was the debut of a new car which had everyone on the same blank slate. Now that we’re a year under our belts, it’s not a surprise that the top teams with the most budgets are dominating early.
After one race, it appears like 2019 may be a classic Penske vs. Ganassi show for the title. The five combined drivers were the class of the field this weekend. They swept the first two rows in the first qualifying session of the year and led nearly the entire race. In the end, they were 1-2-3-4-7.
No one had anything for them. That’s not too shocking in the sense that Ganassi and Penske drivers have combined to win each of the last six series championships. Furthermore, they’ve won 10 of the last 11 overall.
Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay look to be the best of the rest for Andretti as this could be a “Big 3” battle for the rest of the year. Even if it becomes so, that’s seven talented drivers who can win any where, any time.
Dixon’s Quiet Day Ends In Runner-Up Finish
Scott Dixon has never won back-to-back IndyCar championships. He’s 0-for-4 in his efforts. But, he’d like to end that in 2019 and follow up last year’s title with a second straight. It’s rare that a driver with the second most championships in Indy Car ever has never won two straight.
His first came in 2003 but it took five years for his next in 2008. It took another five years for his third in 2013. He’s won three now over the past six years. Can he get a fourth in seven?
If so, he’s off to a great start.
While he’s 0-for-15 now in St. Pete, he did earn a runner-up finish on the 1.8-mile street circuit. Sunday’s second place finish in his No. 9 Honda was his fourth in the annual season opener (2006, 2007, 2012, 2019) as he now has four straight top seven finishes to his credit at St. Pete. In comparison, Dixon finished sixth last year.
This weekend, Dixon was fairly quiet. He was fourth, 13th and seventh respectively in practice saying he had a top three car in his opinion. He spun in qualifying on Saturday but got lucky in a missed penalty from IndyCar on him but a penalty called on Takuma Sato for a similar spin. That moved Dixon up into the top six which advanced him from the first round to the second. Dixon, called that a Christmas present.
He could have started 14th. Instead, he advanced easily through the second round and started 10 spots better in fourth. Just past halfway, he passed Will Power for second on track and remained there until the end.
Hinchcliffe Caps Solid Weekend With Top 10
If 2019 is going to be the year of Penske vs. Ganassi vs. Andretti, then what James Hinchcliffe did was remarkable on Sunday. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was the best of the rest with a sixth place finish in the season opener. The top 10 result was Hinch’s third straight in St. Pete and fifth in eight tries.
The Canadian had a quiet weekend too. He was 13th, seventh and 12th respectively in practice and started his No. 5 Honda in Row 5. He quickly improved and stayed near the top five or six positions for the rest of the day.
It was another solid start to the season for one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers.
There’s a ton of hype around the new rookie class in 2019. On Sunday, the proved their worth. Three of the top nine spots went to rookies with Rosenqvist leading the way in fourth.
Colton Herta was around the top 10 all afternoon and brought his No. 88 Honda home a stellar eighth. Santino Ferrucci turned heads in coming from the last row to a ninth place effort in his No. 19 Honda.
This just goes to show that this class may be among the best to ever come through the series.
10 Rosenqvist R
88 Herta R
19 Ferrucci R
15 Rahal -1
98 Andretti -1
26 Veach -1
14 Kanaan -1
59 Chilton -1
23 Kimball -1
81 Hanley R -2
30 Sato OUT
7 Ericsson R OUT
20 Jones OUT
4 Leist OUT
28 Hunter-Reay OUT
18 Bourdais OUT