Wilson, Newgarden make big leaps from qualifying to race in St. Petersburg

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Top movers on Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg were Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing and Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. The pair ended in eighth and ninth in the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series opener.

For both of them though, they probably wished they had qualified a little better.

Wilson started only 16th in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda but made strides in setup in the Sunday morning warmup, ending in eighth after adjustments working with new engineer Michael Cannon.

A methodical move forward saw Wilson eventually end in the same position for the race, but with some greater heights on the running order during pit stop cycles thanks to an off-sequence strategy.

“We made some big improvements in the warm up this morning and I really felt we had a strong car to get after it,” said the English gentle giant also known as “Bad ass.” “The Dale Coyne Racing guys did a great job giving me the clear track early on because the car was fast.

“I was just hoping to get a bit more of a clear track! It seemed really difficult to get by people today,” he added. “With the alternate strategy, we were running hard in clean air and I was just trying to make the most of it. At one stage I was managing fuel, managing tires and managing the brakes, as well as trying to run as fast as I could! So it was a tough balancing act trying not to use up too much of the car early on.”

Wilson tweeted Monday that it was a tough race, but he did quite well.

Newgarden started 22nd and stone last on the field but went into stealth mode during the race. Like Wilson, Newgarden was in his first race with a new engineer in Jeremy Milless.

The Tennessee native told me earlier in the week that he’s a major superhero junkie, and on this occasion the No. 67 Florida Lottery Honda appeared like the Flash – he was a stealth fighter with an invisibility cloak.

He made moves through the field although many weren’t caught on TV. Near the end of the race, he had an opportunity to catch Wilson but was unable to get past due in part to Wilson’s excellent corner exit from the final turn, Turn 14.

“We started really buried in the field. Starting 22nd is not ideal and we had a really tough go on Saturday,” said the third-year driver. “That just put us on the back foot for the race. What we need to do is qualify better and have a better weekend as a whole. We kept fighting; there are a lot of fighters on this team who never give up. We scored a top-10 finish, which is wonderful.”

Wilson’s Coyne teammate, rookie Carlos Huertas, accomplished his main goal of finishing the race. To be honest, the Colombian was one of the drivers that impressed me the most this weekend – he was not out of his depth on track, he kept the car in one piece and was reasonably close to the field considering a substantial lack of testing time.

Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s INDYCAR race was postponed until Monday

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Here’s what several drenched drivers had to say after Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was postponed until Monday morning (11:30 a.m. ET, LIVE on NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2018 pole winner): “It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us. We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much. There was too much puddling and pooling of water on every straightaway. Then the rivers started flowing, high-speed compressions in Turns 1 and 2, fast corner, 12 and 13, fast corner where the river starts to form. Just tough. I mean, look, we love racing in the rain. It’s got nothing to do with not wanting to run in the rain, not being able to do that. It’s that this type of track with this water level was too much to race today. We’ve run here in the rain before, but it intensified to the point where you’re starting to get in a situation where it’s going to take it out of the drivers’ hands. What happened with Will (Power), I don’t think is a driver error. I don’t know how anyone is going to drive hydroplaning on the front straightaway. I think you would have had that for the rest of the track, too. A tough situation. Thanks for the fans that came out and supported us. Hopefully we’ll get some people back tomorrow and we’ll get the show in and put on a great event.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet):
“Tough day so far. We had some problems with our radio and fuel alarm, but otherwise the car was alright. It was just too dangerous out there, we couldn’t see anything, so I think they made the right call. Hopefully we’ll have a good race tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s just a real shame for everyone on the Verizon Chevy team. The car was good and we were doing our best out there, but it was really hard to see anything in front of me. The conditions were just so bad. As soon as I got to the frontstraight, the car just came around, and I tried to keep it off the wall, but it was hydroplaning and there was nothing I could do. I feel bad for the team and for the fans in this weather. Just too bad. Hopefully our luck can turn around when we get to Indianapolis.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Very difficult day for us. In the race we were 13th at the time and we had some electrical issues, so that caused us to pit and we lost a lap. Not the ideal situation, but we don’t give up. There’s still a race tomorrow and we’re going to go for the most points. Anything can happen.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue today, no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in today, but that’s life. We will go racing tomorrow.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I think definitely the right decision was made to red flag the race. It’s a very difficult position for everyone to be in. It’s never the result that you want, but safety is obviously a priority. I think everyone did a good job considering the conditions of looking out for each other. Not being able to see is not doing anybody any good. It is hard for everyone, but glad that we’re all in one piece and try again later.

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “As you could see on TV, if you couldn’t see the car, it was probably three times worse in the cockpit on the main straight or any straight. You had to completely trust the guys that they were accelerating. Never the less, I made good progress on the short stint and I made up a few positions.  The car was working well, but also was aquaplaning a lot, too, so I have to respect INDYCAR’s decision for everyone’s safety. Now we really need to concentrate on having a good car for tomorrow. I’m sorry for the fans that sat in rain all day, but thank them for their support.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “It was a short day. In the beginning the conditions were not that good, but afterwards the conditions started to improve. The race was stopped, then restarted, and I think the conditions were not too bad at that point. Unfortunately, it was red flagged again and then cancelled for the day. It would have been nice to get halfway, but we will come back and try again tomorrow.”