Interstate 65 becoming Josef Newgarden’s ‘Highway to Victory’

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – It’s 221 miles from Josef Newgarden’s hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee to Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. All he has to do is hop on Interstate 65 and drive South.

The Team Penske NTT IndyCar Series driver knows the route by heart.

With three wins in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama since 2015, including the last two years in a row, Newgarden has become a master of this magnificent 2.3-mile, 17-turn natural terrain road course.

“Honestly, I really don’t know why I’m so successful there lately,” Newgarden told NBC “I’ve always liked Barber. The races for one reason of another seem to pan out there. It’s so difficult to win in these IndyCar races. Everything has to line up. You have to catch the cautions correctly. Your plan has to really work out depending on where wrecks are happening or tire choices amongst the field and if your tire choice is correct to what other people chose. There are just so many variables now.

“The Barber event just always seems to work out. I don’t know why. I like the track; I’ve always been quick around there. It’s just one of those circuits that has a lot of high-speed sections and I’ve always liked high-speed sections in an Indy car and thought I was pretty good at that. That’s some of the reasons that has helped.”

The 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion has gotten off to a fast start to the 2019 season. He won the March 10 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and followed that with a second-place finish to race-winner Colton Herta in the March 24 INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas.

That makes him the early leader in the 2019 standings, 18 points ahead of Herta and 36 in front of five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.

A fourth win in Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would solidify his path in the championship battle this year.

Watch the race on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN or at or the NBC Sports app

“I don’t always know why things work out the way they do but at St. Pete we had great race cars underneath us, which goes a long way,” Newgarden told NBC about his early-season success. “Everything starts with finding speed and we’ve had speed at both events.

“At St. Pete, we had a lot of speed. That is the first ingredient to me that is necessary to have consistent finishes. I think we’ve made a big step in that front, specifically with street courses. We are very encouraged by what is going to take place for the rest of the year. We have solid foundation under us. Hopefully, on the road courses that will be the same case, but I think we have a little more work to do on the road course side as we move throughout the season.”

Team Penske changed race engineers over the offseason with Gavin Ward taking over for Brian Campe, who was elevated to Team Penske Technical Director. Ward came from Formula One and was previously an engineer at Red Bull F1 for Daniel Ricciardo.

“It has been a real pleasure getting to work with Gavin, full-time,” Newgarden continued. “He is super talented. He has a wonderful attitude. He’s a really good addition to the team and has been that way straight from the first day he started working there a year ago. It’s been pretty seamless because I had him with me last year and had the benefit of working with both him and Brian Campe.

“Brian was the point guy, but Gavin was still there throughout the whole thing. It didn’t feel like we were starting at square one when we started the season. It’s been a very smooth transition. He’s been a great engineer. We get along very well. The whole dynamic of the team has been pretty solid from the start.”

Chevrolet has developed an increase in horsepower, and that has been noticeable to Newgarden and the other Chevrolet drivers. He also believes Team Penske has discovered a few tweaks that can me bad in the second year of the aerodynamic package on the Dallara Indy cars.

“We’ve been pushing it with Chevrolet to be better in all fronts,” Newgarden said. “We’re making progress every year. We are for sure better in all areas. We have improved our fuel mileage. Our reliability is rock solid, which is what we expect from Chevrolet and they have delivered that. And our power is pretty good. We know we need to stay on top of those things. If we don’t continue to keep improving them, that is when you risk falling behind.

“As far as the aero kit, we have definitely made progress. We all sat down very early in the offseason last year and got together as a group, all of the drivers and engineers, and tried to devise a plan that really addressed all of our concerns from 2018 and where we thought we could be better. As a group, we have improved our chassis. I think the engineers have done a really nice job homing in on a few areas. And we have found more speed.”

Newgarden dominated the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series season to win the championship with four wins and one pole. Last year, he won three races and had four poles, but finished fifth in the title run that was won by Dixon.

“For us, we had a lot of success last year with poles,” Newgarden said. “We had a lot of poles between Will Power and me and we had speed on qualifying day, but it didn’t always translate into race speed. That seemed to change throughout the year. We weren’t spectacularly consistent last year. Trying to find some consistency in the race car was a big key for us and we have found that in the offseason.”

What the time found in the offseason may be on display this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Even before Newgarden moved back to the suburb of Nashville, Tennessee over the offseason, Newgarden has raced in numerous categories at the facility that is known as the “Augusta National of Racing.”

“It’s a fun event for me,” Newgarden said. “Regardless of the location, it’s a cool facility. It’s a cool atmosphere and one I look forward to all year round. Certainly, having it in close proximity to Nashville is an advantage, though. It’s easy to get there for me, which is always nice.

“It is one of our best tracks we go to. It’s one of my favorites. I like everywhere that we race, but that is a highlight for me. We have great racing for whatever reason. I think it’s the way the track has evolved, and the way people have set up the car around there, and the way the tires perform on that track lends itself for better passing. There is a correct level of drop-off to the tires that is perfectly matched for good racing conditions.”

Newgarden is becoming a popular figure in Nashville. He regularly attends Nashville Predators games in the National Hockey League. Nashville is also becoming a hotbed for IndyCar fans.

Barber Motorsports Park is 225 miles to the South and the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway – home of the Indianapolis 500 – is 292 miles up I-65.

“I think in general there are a lot of racing fans in Nashville, that are aware of IndyCar and like it,” Newgarden said. “There are a lot of new fans that are liking it. A lot of people that I meet that are learning what I do and get interested in it and start watching the races and love what we have to offer. It’s cool. I think it’s a great market for us. A lot of people are very interested in what we have going on and follow along.

“I think our racing fans are Nashville are racing fans. They like seeing everything. Whether they are NASCAR fans or IndyCar fans, they like watching both most of the time. They are good with all of it.”

Each of Newgarden’s three Nashville wins have been significant for various reasons. When he drove to victory in 2015, it was his first career NTT IndyCar Series win. He was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing and after years of trying to develop into a race winner, it became a reality when he defeated a hard-charging Graham Rahal to the checkered flag.

“That first win in 2015, just took forever,” Newgarden said. “I remember being so close to winning a race for so long and it not panning out. It finally did that day at Barber. We always had speed there. Once you get that first win out of the way, it certainly brings a lot of confidence and makes you feel like you can do it again and get to Victory Lane much easier.

“There was a lot of work that was put in from 2012 to 2015, the merger with Ed Carpenter Racing. There was so much effort throughout the years, it was big to reward everyone for getting that first win. I was over the moon about it. Everyone that had their hand in it was very pleased to see it finally pay off after so many close calls for us to finally win it. It was a big day in 2015.”

When Newgarden won at Barber in 2017, it was his first win for Team Penske and came in a season where he won the championship.

“We had a good start in 2017,” Newgarden said. “We were pretty quick right out of the gates. It was nice getting that first win there. Early in the new partnership, you want to get success early to validate the transition. It was really pleasing to have it happen so soon in that season of 2017. To have it happen at Barber, was pretty cool. To have it where I had my first win, to have another first with Team Penske just seemed right.”

Last year’s win was his first back-to-back victory at a track, and it came under unusual circumstances. Heavy rain and darkness forced the originally-schedule date to be postponed. The race was completed on the following Monday morning.

“It was a weird deal,” Newgarden remembered. “I had never been involved in a race where you come back the next day and run, so it was a first for a lot of people, but it’s something that had to happen. We were running into light issues with how deep we were having to wait in the rain. The rain itself was relentless. The more it fell, the worse the track got and then it got to the point where we couldn’t really run on it.

“It was unfortunate we couldn’t get it in on that day. But for the most part, people still came out to the event and supported it. It’s always a good atmosphere around Barber. It’s unfortunate when rain ruins things like that, but I was happy with the way it worked out by coming back Monday and capping it off with a win.”

Three wins in four attempts is a pretty good average for any race driver. Another victory at Barber on Sunday would help Newgarden break away from the IndyCar pack early in the season.

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500