Josef Newgarden didn’t so much seem flustered as cognizant, as if he’d dropped his keys down a sewer grate and just realized how annoying that would be for him.
There was bewilderment at how this had just happened, how 229 laps of dominance on Sunday at Iowa Speedway had evaporated with James Hinchcliffe breezing past with 45 laps remaining at the Iowa Corn 300 to win his first Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season.
There was likely a growing understanding of the value of those points lost down that proverbial grate and the seemingly sure win, turned begrudging runner-up finish, turned disappointing fourth-place finish and how it will affect defense of his first series title.
Iowa is right in the middle of the country, right in the middle of the schedule and will be right in the middle of whether the Team Penske driver becomes the first to repeat as series champion since Dario Franchitti won his last of three straight titles in 2011. If, in the remaining six races, the 27-year-old American overcomes the 33-point deficit to points leader Scott Dixon, he will more likely remember the run: how he dominated in leading 53 of 55 laps to win on the Road America permanent road course two weeks ago, then displayed his versatility in doing nearly the same in the next race on the bedeviling Iowa short oval outside Des Moines.
It’s all very plausible, as he enters upcoming races at Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Gateway as the defending winner.
If Newgarden, already a three-time winner this season, can advance no further than his current perch of second place in the standings – even with double points available in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway – he will remember Iowa more in the details. Starting second behind teammate Will Power, he was oppressive early in stints on bumpy, slick asphalt.
He hardly had need to notice that Hinchcliffe, who qualified 11th, began working through the field in a race with just two cautions, with his No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda more effective later in 80-lap fuel runs and bolstered by a key adjustment on its third and final pit stop. He noticed when the Canadian, providing a hearty prelude to his hometown Honda Indy Toronto next weekend and salve for failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, passed Newgarden in the low line through Turns 3 and 4 with 45 of 300 laps remaining and was hardly challenged thereafter.
“Josef obviously was dominant for a large part of the day, and we had stints where I don't think we were particularly awesome,” Hinchcliffe admitted. “But we were able to just kind of hold on to it, and when it mattered in that last stint, the guys nailed the setup changes, and that's really what won us the race today.”
Newgarden, in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske, briefly contested Hinchcliffe’s advance low during the decisive pass.
“I was being told where I was at, and I think I was more surprised at how much he’d picked up,” said Newgarden, who won at Iowa in 2016. “I think we had a great car today. …. I can’t complain much. It’s a tough pill to swallow, seeing Hinch going by me.
“We just didn’t have it in the end. Sometimes you just can’t forecast that completely. We put on the car what we thought was going to be right for today and for the first half of the race it was. I thought we had a great car. It just went away from us. We tried to do what we could to get competitive at the end and we just ran out of time. You don’t know how that’s going to play out. You try and make the best bet possible.”
It was a bad payout on Sunday considering that points leader Dixon finished 12th, four laps down. The four-time series champion and vaunted late-season predator lost just 12 points of his overall standings lead and 17 points to Newgarden, who began the race fourth in points.
But in a season in which Newgarden has won more often – Dixon has two victories and has more consistently high finishes – Newgarden surrendered ground even when he made up points.
Newgarden could have collected 53 points for the Iowa win (including the bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps) or 43 for second place. Instead, he settled for 35 for fourth.
More painfully, Newgarden was apparently put back in position for one final victory dash when an incident caused by Ed Carpenter prompted a caution with seven laps remaining. Newgarden pitted for fresh tires, as there were just five cars on the lead lap and Hinchcliffe held his position. With Newgarden positioned to blaze back to the front in a minimal-lap sprint, the race could not be restarted in time and ended under caution.
So Newgarden was left counting.
“I think we picked up some valuable points,” he said, consoling himself. “We’ll chalk it up to it was a great day, ‘could-have-been-but-wasn’t,’ so we’ll go onto the next one and try to make it happen.”
And in the end, see how he remembers Iowa.
Next up is the Honda Indy Toronto, where Newgarden is defending champion. The race airs live at 3 p.m. ET Sunday, July 15 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.