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Preseason over, it’s time for Newgarden’s actual Penske race debut

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Both of the two major offseason story lines in the Verizon IndyCar Series parlayed themselves into an actual race weekend story line this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

And after all the talk about them and the thousands of words written about them, it’s time for Chip Ganassi Racing to actually race with Honda and Josef Newgarden to actually race with Team Penske. Ganassi got two of its Hondas in the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday and Newgarden qualified fourth.

Newgarden’s switch to Penske is the highest profile driver change in the series in several years. The 26-year-old from Hendersville, Tenn. made waves in his first five years in the championship. Although he’s only won three races, he’s made year-to-year jumps in the championship (23rd, 14th, 13th, seventh and last year, a career-best fourth) and quickly established himself as the series’ marquee star of the future thanks to his outgoing personality, great relationship with the media and speed and improved race craft on track. His return to action just two weeks after a devastating accident in Texas last year was remarkable and then he promptly went out and dominated at Iowa barely a month after the wreck.

Alas, Newgarden’s answered all the buildup of questions and is more than ready to go tomorrow in the 110-lap season opener in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. He starts fourth and teammate Will Power secured his seventh pole in the last eight races at St. Petersburg, the 45th of his career.

“When you change teams… you don’t want an offseason. We’ve had a long time. I’m excited we’re finally here and through our first qualifying session,” Newgarden said. “It’s been exciting. It’s been a blast working with Will. We have a great unit, great group. I can see why they have been such a great team. It’s a privilege. I’m excited to get through Round 1 and then go to the rest of the calendar year.”

Newgarden thought an appearance in the Firestone Fast Six was possible, if a pole was slightly out of reach. Newgarden’s not had the best of results in St. Petersburg to date – his best start prior to today is 10th in 2015 and his best finish here is ninth in 2014.

“I think for us we thought this was feasible. We felt very good about our race cars,” Newgarden explained. “The other guys were happy, too. We thought Fast Six was possible, but pole was more questionable. We didn’t think we’d have enough for pole. Will did an awesome job. He maximized the most of it.”

On the line for Newgarden is a chance to extend the streak of the No. 2 Chevrolet to win at St. Petersburg. Juan Pablo Montoya, confirmed earlier Saturday by team boss Roger Penske to also race a fifth car at the IndyCar Grand Prix in Indianapolis in May, has won here the last two seasons.

And another streak on the line is that of drivers who’ve started fourth at St. Petersburg have all gone on to win four years in a row. That’s where Montoya rolled off those two years, where Power started in 2014 in the only year since 2009 he hasn’t been on pole, and where James Hinchcliffe, who starts next to Newgarden on row two tomorrow in third, won from in 2013.

“So I’ve been told all this,” Newgarden deadpanned. “Hopefully the odds favor us this weekend. This car has been victorious twice the last two years. No pressure.

“It’s the best I’ve started around St. Pete. I feel I didn’t maximize that Fast Six as much as I could have. But Will put an awesome lap together. Our race cars off the truck have been pretty good. We’ve stayed inside of our window. The next thing for me is to learn the race car, and perform over a tire stint. We’ll try to do a great job with the Verizon 2 car.”

Penske, who’s added Newgarden in place of Montoya alongside Power, defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves, said earlier Saturday Newgarden is a driver the team can build around for the long-term.

“For us, it was key that we hired an American… but he’s a young man, he’s articulate, and he shows up when he’s on the race track,” Penske told a small group of assembled reporters earlier Saturday. “He’s a tremendous team player with our other drivers. He’s represented us with our sponsors. He’s exactly what we want to help build our team.”

Asked if Newgarden’s usual propensity for fun on social media could continue, Penske brought some humor of his own to the answer.

“I just tell them to wear white shirts and black pants… other than that, they can do whatever the hell they want!” Penske laughed.

The race will not only see Newgarden’s debut with the team but also his first race working with Team Penske president Tim Cindric as his race strategist, Cindric having moved off the box from Power’s No. 12 team where he’d been since the middle of 2011. Jon “Myron” Bouslog shifts to Power’s car and starts from the pole position. Penske explained the rationale behind the change.

“We wanted to give him more support since he’s moving,” Penske said. “Dave (Faustino) is one of the best engineers on Will’s car, and that hasn’t changed. It worked out well. When you go to four cars, you choose from a talent pool, it’s one of those things. So from the 12 car, Tim will move over.”

The Penske/Newgarden relationship is one of the key story lines to watch this season, starting tomorrow. IndyCar returns to NBCSN on April 9 with Round 2 from Long Beach.

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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