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.

Josef Newgarden dominates from pole to win KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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There’s a reason why Josef Newgarden calls Road America his favorite racetrack – and he showed why Sunday, dominating to victory in the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

Newgarden led all but two laps from the pole and was in a class of his own throughout the 55-lap caution-free race on the 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course in central Wisconsin, defeating runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay by 3.3759 seconds.

“(I wanted this one) really bad,” Newgarden told NBCSN in victory lane. “I wanted to win here since last year. This car has been a rocket all weekend. It wasn’t easy. Ryan was very quick and I knew Dixon was right behind him, so we were working for it the entire race.

“I kind of knew what I had to do, but it was a lot of work. Ryan was really pushing me. It’s good to get a win. It doesn’t matter what car, as long as it’s Team Penske.”

It was Newgarden’s series-leading third win of the season in the first 10 races (also won at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama), pushing him past Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Will Power and Scott Dixon, who both have two wins in the 2018 campaign.

“I was hoping to make it more interesting for the fans here at Road American and on TV,” Hunter-Reay said. “The last two stints, when he put on used red and I had blacks, he was really hooked up. … I was pushing 110 percent, that’s for sure.

“Unfortunately, I just couldn’t catch up to Josef. I was able to close up the gap a little bit here and there, but not like I was early in the race. He found his own way for sure. Definitely, the clean air out front helps, but hats off to him: he had a great race and deserves the win.”

Dixon finished third, followed by Takuma Sato, Robert Wickens, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Spencer Pigot (his best finish of the season), Ed Jones and James Hinchcliffe.

Dixon (393 points) maintains the Verizon IndyCar Series points lead, Hunter-Reay (348) moved up two spots to second place, Alexander Rossi (tied with Hunter-Reay for second at 348) dropped one spot to third, Newgarden (343) climbed one spot to fourth and Will Power (328) dropped two spots to fifth in the standings.

“It’s so tight … so tough,” Dixon said. “The Verizon IndyCar Series, right now, the competition is through the roof. To get a podium these days is tough enough, yet to get a win. But we’ll keep pushing and see what we get.”

There was action right from the opening lap, including misfortune for Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power, who suffered engine issues that sent him to the pits after the opening lap.

After trying to work on his car in the pits, Power’s team pushed it back to the paddock to attempt further repairs, but those efforts failed and the car was retired.

Power was third in the IndyCar points standings coming into the race, 36 points behind series leader Scott Dixon. He finished last (23rd) in Sunday’s race and will likely drop to fifth in the standings.

“They replaced the exhaust, and it just blew straight back out,” Power told NBCSN’s Marty Snider. “So, there’s obviously something going on in there that’s gone wrong.

“I feel bad for all the guys. It’s just one of those things, you know – you’ll get that every now and then at some point. No good, but we’ll move on to the next one.”

Also, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi had an issue with what appeared to be brakes- or suspension-related that resulted in a lengthy pit stop after 38 laps. Rossi finished 16th in the 23-car field.

“Hugely disappointing,” Rossi told NBCSN. “It was good enough for fourth … but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”

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