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.

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”