Josef Newgarden went down swinging with a mighty punch.
With just a 1 percent chance of winning the Astor Challenge Cup, Newgarden led the final 15 laps Sunday in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet to win a wild, unpredictable Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season finale on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Still, the winning performance wasn’t enough, and with a third-place finish, Scott Dixon won his sixth INDYCAR championship by just 16 points over defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden after leading the season wire-to-wire in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Dixon sits just one title behind the all-time INDYCAR record of seven championships, set by the legendary A.J. Foyt.
Pato O’Ward split the two championship competitors by finishing second in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Sebastien Bourdais finished fourth in the No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top five in the No. 28 DHL Honda.
The dramatic conclusion to the season marked the 15th consecutive season that the INDYCAR championship battle came down to the final race.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Rinus VeeKay easily won the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year award. VeeKay, driver of the No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet, clinched the title simply by starting the race.
Dutch driver VeeKay didn’t have a day indicative of his season. On Lap 47, he collided with Scott McLaughlin in the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet in Turn 1. McLaughlin made contact with Marco Andretti in the No. 98 Curb / AutoNation Honda and spun, and VeeKay had nowhere to go, colliding with the front of McLaughlin’s car.
McLaughlin, who was unveiled Friday as a full-time INDYCAR driver for Team Penske in 2021, was forced to retire from the race and finished 22nd. VeeKay lost two laps and finished 15th. VeeKay announced Sunday morning he will return to Ed Carpenter Racing in 2021.
The only street course on the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a memorable race from start to finish that was not generous to the strongest cars in the field.
Pole sitter Will Power led the first five laps in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, but a downshifting issue allowed Alexander Rossi to take the lead in the No. 27 AutoNation / NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda as 2014 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Power slowed on Lap 6.
On Lap 36, Power, a two-time winner on the streets of St. Petersburg, got loose exiting Turn 3 and hit the wall. Power pulled off the course in Turn 4, ending his day and finished 24th.
2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Rossi then dominated the race, leading all but five laps by the time disaster struck on Lap 70.
After pitting from the lead on Lap 66, Rossi was pushing his Andretti Autosport Honda as he waited for green flag pit stops to cycle through. Then, exiting Turn 4, Rossi lost control and spun. He hit the inside wall with the front and rear of the car. Rossi finished 21st.
“I just lost it in Turn 3, man,” said Rossi, who was looking to end the season with four consecutive podium finishes. “It’s been tough all weekend. Just human error. Hugely unfortunate. I think the No. 27 AutoNation Andretti Honda guys were phenomenal. Andretti Autosport was phenomenal all weekend. It sucks, man. It’s the first time it’s happened to me, to crash from the lead. I don’t know what to say other than sorry to the boys, and we’ll come back next year.”