Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden rode a set of fresh tires late in the race to victory in Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway.
“I didn’t do anything tonight, it was a team victory,” Newgarden told NBCSN. “It was a team effort. They made the right call (for the tires late in the race).
“I was patient all night. I wasn’t forcing it. I struggled with balance in certain parts of the stints. … I knew when it was time to be aggressive was at the end there.”
Ed Jones hit the wall with 21 laps to go (see video below) in the 250-lap race, ending his night and bringing out the final caution that shook up the field for what would become a seven-lap shootout.
After getting fresh rubber with 18 laps to go while under caution from Jones’ wreck, Newgarden took the lead from rookie Robert Wickens with four laps to go and checked out, finishing 2.9946 seconds ahead of Wickens, who was followed by Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“I don’t know that I deserved to win the race tonight, but I think the team did,” Newgarden added in his post-race media session. “They did a really good job on strategy, pit stops were unbelievable. I think I gained like five or six positions on just the first stop, which was awesome. They did a great job.
“The tires make a huge difference. I had 50-lap newer tires. With that, with how much he (Wickens) had to check up in T1, he gave me just enough room. I didn’t have to get crazy high. That one I definitely took risks. I think sometimes you have to do that in the right position, and I think it was the right time to do it tonight.”
It was Newgarden’s first win of 2018, his second consecutive win on a short oval (won late last season at Gateway) and his eighth career IndyCar win. It also was Firestone’s 500th win since returning to IndyCar in 1995.
It was Wickens’ first career race ever on an oval, and to finish second was an outstanding achievement.
“I was just ecstatic to come home P2,” Wickens said. “I tried to defend (Newgarden) the best I could but he just had better grip on fresher tires.”
Rossi was on a rocket ship in the final 25 laps, picking off one car after another to earn a podium finish.
“We deserved to win but it wasn’t meant to be,” Rossi said. “We just need to keep it up and continue this on into Long Beach next weekend.”
James Hinchcliffe finished sixth, followed by Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud.
Eleventh through 20th were Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti, pole sitter Sebastien Bourdais, Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves, Zack Veach, Charlie Kimball, Max Chilton, Mattheus Leist and Ed Jones.
The final three drivers were Kyle Kaiser, Will Power and Pietro Fittipaldi.
* Bourdais had an issue getting his car started on the pace laps, but finally got going and was able to assume his pole position when the green flag dropped.
* It was an all-France front row to start the race, with Sebastien Bourdais on the pole, alongside countryman Simon Pagenaud.
* Clea Newman, daughter of late actor and former IndyCar team co-owner Paul Newman, served as grand marshal for the race.
* Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of legendary racer Emerson Fittipaldi, brushed the wall on Lap 41, ending his day with a last-place finish in the 23-car field. “We were having a good race, the car was really good, we were running 11th, got past traffic … I went into (turns) 3 and 4, completely lost grip, slid into the marbles and went straight into the wall,” Fittipaldi told NBCSN. “I think we could have had a top 10. I’ll learn from this.”
* Bourdais and Alexander Rossi were both forced to serve pass-through penalties after the caution to Fittipaldi for striking crew members on their team. The crew members were uninjured. Later, on Lap 130, Rossi brushed the wall but continued on.
* Rookie Matheus Leist made a big mistake on Lap 122. He left his pit early before all tires were secured, the left rear tire fell off and the tire rolled down pit lane. He spun the car around so that he could get back to his pit stall, but almost hit an official.
* Canadian drivers, good friends and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcliffe and rookie Robert Wickens took over the top two spots on Lap 130. Hinchcliffe got high on Lap 143 and Wickens snuck by to take the lead.
* Will Power went into the wall on Lap 157 and suffered damage to the right rear that had to be repaired, costing Power a chance at a win. He ultimately finished 22nd.
* Lap 176: Rookie Kyle Kaiser brushed the wall and slowly worked his way to the pits; no caution.
* Bourdais had to give up the lead on Lap 207 to pit for fuel. He had hoped for a caution, but was forced to stop under green, potentially costing him the win.
John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.
The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).
Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.
Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”
Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.
“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).
“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.
“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”
It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.
Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.
“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.
Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:
Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.
The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.
Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.
“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”
In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.
Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.
“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”
Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.
In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.
“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”
The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
FINAL FINISHING ORDER:
TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.
FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.
TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.