Josef Newgarden took a risk last Sunday at Detroit that ended up backfiring. But today in qualifying for the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR, Newgarden stuck his neck out again with a different strategy than everyone else, and it paid off in a big way.
Newgarden, the driver of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, won the NTT P1 Award in the Firestone Fast Six on the 14-turn, 4.014-mile road course at Road America.
His second straight pole this season came after a bold move to be the only driver to use new primary “black” Firestone tires for the entire final round of qualifying. The other five drivers either chose used alternate “red” Firestone tires or switched to their used red tires during their final runs in the Fast Six.
“I knew that as soon as we ran the reds, I was like, ‘You are going to need blacks here for the Fast Six, no doubt,” Newgarden said. “I felt very confident that new blacks were going to be an advantage in the Fast Six.”
Two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden also attempted a strategic tire move when starting from the pole last Sunday in Detroit. He was one of only three drivers in the 25-car field to start the race with Firestone primary tires, with all other drivers on red alternate tires.
With the INDYCAR mandate to use the more durable primary and grippier but less durable alternate tires in each race, Newgarden chose to save his alternate tires for his last stint, banking on the extended life of the black tire to give him a big enough lead to hold on at the end of the race.
The strategy looked like it might work, as Newgarden led the first 67 laps of the race.
But Pato O’Ward, driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet and leader of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, was on primary tires at the end and passed Newgarden with three laps to go to become the only driver to have won multiple races for the 2021 season.
That decision to use a different tire strategy than nearly everyone else at Detroit backfired on Newgarden as the degradation of the red tires got the better of him.
“I wish I could have taken those three laps back, just try it again, had another shot,” Newgarden said. “For us, we had to run perfect at the end there. I made a slight slip-up. It was easy to do.“
Despite the disappointment from a botched attempt at trying something different for Newgarden and his team, they still had the guts to try a new strategy today at Road America while in search of their first win of the season.
It would not only be the first win for Newgarden this year, but the first win for Team Penske, which is heading into the ninth race of the season still searching for its first win.This is the longest Team Penske has started a season without a win since its last winless season, in 1999.
But Newgarden has not had a bad season, per se, through the first nine races. He sits fourth in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points standings with four top-five finishes and six top-10 finishes as well as 92 laps led, which ranks fourth in the series.
“I feel like our cars, at least the 2 car, are really good,” Newgarden said. “It's just not worked out in some of these circumstances. It's not been terribly frustrating. The speed has been there. We qualified first or second, I think, the majority. We've been well within striking distance.”
And he feels confident that a win is right around the corner, especially with pole position heading into a race where he has been very successful as recently as 2019, when he finished third, and 2018, when he won.
But Newgarden knows this year’s race will depend on his tire strategy and how well he can control the balance between aggressiveness and saving the life of the tire. He will be one of 18 drivers starting the 55-lap race tomorrow on alternate tires. In fact, the top eight drivers in the starting lineup will begin on reds.
“I don't know that you can play the prediction game,” Newgarden said. “It is just a lot more difficult. Much higher degradation. At least twice as much, I would say. So, it's going to be a different challenge than what it was in '18.
“It just creates excitement. When you get that separation with good and bad cars on tire life, it's exciting to watch.”