Two days of intense racing at the Raceway at Belle Isle, two days of Team Penske domination, and two frustrated Penske drivers when it was all said and done.
That was the sentiment after Josef Newgarden led all but three laps en route to a second-place finish in the second race of the Chevrolet Dual at Detroit NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader Sunday.
Newgarden led the first 67 laps of the 70-lap race in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, but he couldn’t hold off Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet in the closing laps on old Firestone alternate “red” tires. They were the same tires he used in qualifying to score the NTT P1 Award in the morning and lost most of their grip by the end of the race.
INDYCAR rules mandate that drivers must use at least one set of both the Firestone primary “black” tires and alternate “red” tires in road- and street-course races.
“(It’s) sad. Just pretty sad,” a dejected Newgarden said. “It’s hard not to be disappointed. We had the car to beat. Just cautions when we didn’t need it. Wrong tires when we didn’t need them. It was a fun strategy. I think we were doing well. It’s just the caution that killed us.
“My rear (tires) were shot. We didn’t really need that. It is what it is. We tried. We went for what we went for. I don’t want to second guess it too much. It just didn’t fall our way there at the end, so it’s pretty sad.”
Newgarden started the race on the primary Firestone tires that last longer compared to the alternate tires. He led Colton Herta in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda by as much as 12 seconds in the early stages of the race.
The first hurdle thrown Newgarden’s way came on Lap 20 when the stopped car of Dalton Kellett in the No. 4 K-Line Insulators / AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet at pit exit forced Newgarden on pit lane earlier than his team would have liked. Unsure if the stopped car would result in a caution, Newgarden said he and his team didn’t want a caution to come out with his car as the only one that hadn’t pitted.
So, two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden took primary tires on Lap 21, meaning he would have to use the alternate tires on the final run of the race for more laps than his team wanted. His strength was unmatched, however, and he continued to hold a strong lead over Herta through the middle of the race.
Newgarden made his final pit stop on Lap 46 for the already worn tires, and the race was on. Herta closed the gap to Newgarden to one second when a caution came out at Lap 54 for a spin by Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda in Turn 2.
This caution appeared as though it could be Newgarden’s saving grace. With strong Chevrolet horsepower down the straightaways, Newgarden began to pull away from Herta, who was facing pressure from behind.
Then, another hurdle was thrown at Newgarden in the form of a caution on Lap 59 for Romain Grosjean’s No. 51 NURTEC ODT Honda stalled in Turn 7. This was a barrier Newgarden couldn’t scale.
Newgarden couldn’t hold off O’Ward, who was on primary tires and stronger on restarts. Newgarden and O’Ward raced side-by-side and made contact, damaging the left-side of Newgarden’s black-and-white car, with three laps remaining. Newgarden raced to the finish line 6.7595 seconds behind O’Ward.
“To run 25 laps on used reds was not ideal, and then the cautions bunching us up probably hurt us, as well, just brought the whole field back to it,” Newgarden said. “I think we probably could have held Colton off potentially if we just would have run cleanly to the end there (after the Lap 54 caution). But that's kind of impossible to say. I'd have to see that play out.”
Even though Newgarden suffered a tough loss, he said he wouldn’t change a thing about the team’s race strategy Sunday. He insisted his team did everything right; it was just circumstances that prevented him from visiting Victory Lane.
The tough loss came the day after teammate Power led 37 of 70 laps in Race 1 of the Dual at Detroit, but an apparent ECU malfunction under red flag conditions with five laps to go took him out of the lead. Power finished 20th in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet.
Combined, the two drivers led 104 of 140 laps raced at Belle Isle, just shy of 75 percent of the laps completed over the weekend.
While there have been seven different winners in eight races to start the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, a Team Penske driver has not been one of them.
Eight races into the season is the longest Team Penske has gone into a season without a victory since the team went winless in 1999. In 2013, Helio Castroneves won the eighth race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway for Team Penske.
Despite that, Newgarden feels confident about Team Penske moving forward based on this weekend’s performance. He sees no reason why himself, Power, Simon Pagenaud in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet or Scott McLaughlin in the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet can’t win next Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR at Road America (noon ET, LIVE on NBCSN).
He said he considers the first half of this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season to have been successful. Sure, he’d like to have scored wins by now, but Newgarden now sits fourth in the championship standings, 51 points behind leader O’Ward.
“I'm not sure we have to really bounce back,” Newgarden said. “We were fast today, hopefully fast next weekend, and hopefully it all works out. If I had the answer (as to why Team Penske has yet to win) I'd be doing it, but I'm sure it'll happen at some point. It just hasn't aligned.
“Sometimes you get that. You just don't get everything to line up perfectly. I think we've got a lot of the ingredients right. I don't think we really need to change much, just keep doing our thing.”