Josef Newgarden started deep in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama field, but a yeoman’s performance allowed him to retain his points lead with a fourth-place finish.
In nine previous IndyCar races at Barber Motorsports Park, three drivers have won races in pairs. Newgarden entered the weekend with an opportunity to be the first to win three straight at this track, but as soon as qualification was in the books, he knew he had a steep hill to climb.
None of the previous nine editions of this race had ever been won from outside the top 10. Only two drivers where successful from further back than Row 3, which put a lot of emphasis on making the Fast Six.
Failing to make the Round of 12, Newgarden did not even come close with a 16th-place effort. For that matter, none of the Team Penske drivers cracked the Fast Six for the first time since Long Beach in 2014. Will Power came closest with a seventh. Simon Pagenaud qualified 14th.
Newgarden finally found a little speed in the morning warmup, posting up third behind Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi. But it would take all day for Newgarden to challenge the leaders.
With the clock running out, Newgarden was forced to ramp up his aggression to advance through traffic. In the closing laps, he sliced to the inside of Rossi under heavy braking to make the pass for fourth.
“I told (Rossi), hey sorry for shoving you a little bit out – honestly a little bit more than I wanted to,” Newgarden said on NBCSN after the race. “When we got into the corner when I had such a good run, he braked a little deeper than I thought he would and I locked the right front, which sent me into him more than I liked.”
Newgarden failed in his attempt to win three consecutive races and get a fifth consecutive podium finish at Barber, but he was pleased with the fourth-place finish.
“I think it was about what we could hope for today (after) starting 16th. It’s as simple as that; you have to start up higher if you want to do better.”
Newgarden’s 2017 championship came with four wins and nine podium finishes. To date, it has been the best performance in a seven-year career – not just for the championship, but in regard to his total wins and consistency.
This year began even better. Newgarden won the season-opening race at St. Petersburg and finished second last week at Circuit of the Americas. In 2017, his first two races ended eighth at St. Petersburg and third at Long Beach before he earned the win at Barber.
Winning a championship is often about minimizing the damage on difficult days.
“We did what we could this weekend,” Newgarden continued. “It started without a lot of laps. Friday and Saturday, we couldn’t get many laps because there were so many cautions; so many red flags. Didn’t get a rhythm.
“I just felt like our car was too inconsistent this weekend. We’ve been talking about it. We’re trying to figure out why that is the case. I think we got it a little bit closer in the race, but it’s still not where we need to be.”
Newgarden’s fourth-place finish allowed him to extend his points lead to 27 points over second-place Scott Dixon. Newgarden entered the weekend with an 18-point advantage over rookie Colton Herta.
Long Beach will be another hill for Newgarden to climb. In seven starts there, he has scored only one top-five finish and has led just four laps. His career best finish of third came in his 2017 championship season. The remainder of his results ended seventh or worse.