Josef Newgarden

Watch: Race Highlights

After a whirlwind evening of racing in Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES can exhale before the season championship hits its final sprint. The three-week run to the title begins Sunday, Sept. 12 with the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway.

The order of the top contenders got rearranged Saturday night with Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Sonsio Team Penske Chevrolet) and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) moving up one position each by finishing first and second, respectively, as Chip Ganassi Racing title contenders Alex Palou (No. 10 The American Legion Honda) and Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda) dropped a position due to a Lap 65 incident with Rinus VeeKay in Turn 1. The damage caused Dixon and Palou to finish 19th and 20th, respectively, and combine to score just 21 points.

O’Ward took the series lead from Palou in a 31-point swing, and he leads by 10 points. He last took the lead June 13 after winning the second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear.

Newgarden’s victory pushed him to third in the standings, drawing him to within 22 points of the top spot in pursuit of what would be his third series championship in five years. Dixon fell to fourth, 43 points out of the lead, although he remains in the hunt for his record-tying seventh season crown.

The ninth-place finish of Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) kept him fifth in the standings, although he is still within striking distance at 60 points out.

This 260-lap race had a significant number of items to unpack, including these:

Penske Drivers Keep Climbing

Newgarden’s victory did more than allow him to collect valuable points toward this championship; it made him the fourth driver to score multiple victories this season, joining Palou, O’Ward and Ericsson.

Newgarden also scored the 20th victory of his career, a noteworthy milestone. Only 22 drivers in history have won as many and, as proof of the competitiveness of this generation of drivers, five of them are active this season: Dixon (51 wins), Will Power (40), Sebastien Bourdais (37) and Helio Castroneves (31) are the others, and Castroneves won this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Not to be overlooked is the recent surge of Team Penske. Winless in the season’s first nine races, Roger Penske’s organization has now won three of the past four races with Newgarden capturing two and Power one. Power said Newgarden has been fast all year, he just hasn’t had the results he often deserved.

“When you look at Newgarden’s pace all year, it really is not a lack of performance,” said Power, who finished third in Saturday night’s race. “It’s just a lack of just circumstance. Yeah, I mean, I expect (the team) to be competitive for the next three races.”

The NTT P1 Award scored by Power on Saturday afternoon in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet was the 63rd of his illustrious career, and it also afforded him some personal relief in his pursuit of Mario Andretti’s record of 67 career poles. Power, who has won at least one pole in 13 consecutive seasons and 15 of the past 16 seasons, was starting to doubt his ability to catch Andretti.

“It’s going to be really tough to ever beat that, but if I didn’t get a pole this year, it pretty much was going to be impossible,” he said.

Chevrolet also had a good weekend, with its cars finishing in the top five positions.

Newgarden: Contact Was ‘Miscommunication’

Newgarden might not have reached victory lane had Team Penske President Tim Cindric decided to have his driver pit following Turn 1 contact with teammate Simon Pagenaud early in the race. Cindric said he considered it, and Newgarden was concerned enough to have agreed with the decision had it been made.

“I was real concerned that we were going to have a tire going down,” Newgarden said. “I knew his front wing had touched my left rear. I wasn’t sure how bad it was.

“I picked up a vibration, and I think it ended up just being a bent rim. So, we got really lucky that it didn’t get worse, but I knew our car was good. I was like, ‘If we can make it through this stint and not compromise our positioning, then we’re going to be just fine.’”

The tire and wheel indeed held up, although Pagenaud had to pit for a new front wing. Newgarden called the contact “some sort of miscommunication.”

“I thought he was making a move, (so) I swung back out wide, went in pretty deep,” Newgarden said. “It didn’t look like he got into the corner deep enough on me. I started to kind of come down so I wasn’t in the marbles.

“We don’t normally get together very often. It’s been a long time since I’ve touched with a teammate. It happens. Fortunately, it wasn’t more significant.”

Pagenaud did the best he could from there, finishing eighth in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

Two Terrific Rookies

We’ll say it again: It does not feel right calling Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean “rookies” given their vast motorsports experience. Both supported that claim with dynamic performances on the shortest oval track of the season.

McLaughlin, who came to INDYCAR after winning three consecutive Supercars Championships in Australia, finished fourth in his No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet. The 28-year-old New Zealander has adapted brilliantly to the ovals, lowering his season average to 8.5 on such tracks. His finishes: second, eighth, 20th and fourth.

“At about the 10th restart or so, I really got into it and got comfortable and got ourselves into a good position there at the end,” he said. “We tested here some time ago, and I’m happy that my feedback has actually translated into some performance gains. It shows I’m learning the car and starting to trust myself -- that’s the biggest part of my journey right now.

“Eventually, when I get more laps under my belt, we will get more results like this every week.”

Grosjean put on a show in his first career oval race, passing cars both on the high side and in the lower lane. In one 20-lap sequence he passed Tony Kanaan, Conor Daly, Dalton Kellett, Jack Harvey and McLaughlin before challenging Ryan Hunter-Reay, a former series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, before pitting.

The driver of the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR was forced to accept a 14th-place finish due to being caught a lap down by the timing of a late-race caution flag. But it can be argued that he should have finished no worse than sixth or seventh.

“I finished my first oval race -- it was a very, very good experience,” Grosjean said. “We tried a strategy that didn’t quite go our way, so the end result isn’t as good as our race. But we had a fast car, we learned a lot.

“I made a couple of mistakes on cold tires and got into the marbles, but I was able to save it and I managed to make some good passes. I’m happy with this first oval race.”

McLaughlin leads the 10-year Formula One veteran by 23 points in what has been a fascinating battle for the series’ Rookie of the Year Award. They have combined for three podium finishes and five top-five finishes this season.

Sato Again Shows Strong at Gateway highlighted the fifth-place finish of Bourdais in Paddock Buzz, and the driver chasing him to the finish line was another veteran: Takuma Sato.

The driver of Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s No. 30 Panasonic/Mi-Jack Honda continues to excel at this track. In six starts, Sato has five top-10 finishes, including a victory in 2019, and a pole and a second-place finish in 2020.

This result came after charging from the 16th starting position.

“St. Louis is one of our favorite tracks, and we have a pretty good record,” he said. “(This) qualifying wasn’t great, but we slowly but definitely moved up and it was quite exciting, lots of overtaking.

“Unfortunately, on a pit stop, the fuel didn’t come in full, and it was kind of short. So, that’s why I had to come in under yellow to top off on fuel, so that was a real shame.”

The finish allowed Sato to climb into the 10th position in the standings. If he finishes there, it will be his third consecutive top-10 finish and fourth in five years. His best was seventh last year.

Nothing ‘Dinky’ about Podium Bottles

Newgarden was particularly pleased with the oversized champagne bottles offered to the top-three finishers of Saturday night’s race. He said he planned to speak to INDYCAR’s owner – a guy named Roger Penske – about getting them for every race.

“I hate when we have these dinky little champagne bottles,” Newgarden said. “This is awesome. Everywhere we should have big bottles like this. I know the boss, so I’ll put in a good word.”

Newgarden wasn’t joking, either, saying they should be “mandatory” at all races.

“I think whoever has done a great job and gotten up on the podium should have a nice, big champagne bottle that sprays for a little while," he said. "You can hand it to the team, and everyone can enjoy it. I think it’s just better for the series. It’s not that hard to do; it’s just a small request. I think it goes a long way to the appearance of the show.”

Up Next

INDYCAR will take a two-week break before embarking on a three-week run to determining the Astor Challenge Cup winner for 2021. Homestretch details:

  • 12: Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC);
  • 19: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (3 p.m. ET, NBC);
  • 26: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on the streets of Long Beach, California (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

None of these races were held last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Power, Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi, respectively, were the 2019 winners.