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.