Simon Pagenaud wins Indy 500 thriller, completes sweep of May

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INDIANAPOLIS – Pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud outdueled Alexander Rossi to win the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in a breathtaking finish Sunday.

Pagenaud and Rossi traded the lead five times after a restart with 14 laps remaining at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Pagenaud took the lead for good with a lap left (on the last of 29 lead changes) and then darted all across the 2.5-mile oval on the final circuit to hold off a charge by Rossi.

“It’s hard to believe right now, to be honest with you,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider in the Winner’s Circle after leading 116 of 200 laps. “It’s been such an intense race. The car was just on rails. The yellows came out perfectly. The stars are aligned.

FULL INDIANAPOLIS 500 COVERAGE: All of NBCSports.com’s 2019 stories over two weeks in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

“It’s pretty amazing. It’s a dream come true, a lifetime of trying to achieve this. I’m just speechless. I never expected to be in this position. … When you have a car like this, a team like this, it’s about executing at the end, and we did execute perfectly. We did it, baby!”

Takuma Sato finished third, followed by Josef Newgarden and Will Power

Pagenaud completed a sweep of May for Team Penske in his No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet, having qualified first for the Indy 500 last weekend after winning the IndyCar Grand Prix two weeks ago.

He joined teammate Power in sweeping the IndyCar Grand Prix and Indy 500 for the second consecutive season.

“What a job Simon’s done this month,” team owner Roger Penske, whose cars now have a record 18 wins in the Indy 500, told NBC Sports. “Did you see that race? Rossi is one of the best, Simon one of the best. Safe race, great day. What a guy! Can you believe it? He won that thing.”

It’s the 13th IndyCar victory for Pagenaud, who is the fifth French-born driver to win the Indy 500 (the last was Brazilian Gil de Ferran, who was born in Paris). Pagenaud is the first Frenchman to win Indy since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920.

Rossi finished 0.2086 seconds behind in second place and said that “horsepower” was the reason even though the Andretti Autosport star thought he was faster overall than Pagenaud’s Chevrolet.

“That’s unfortunately the way it is,” Rossi told Kelli Stavast on NBC Sports. “They did a great job.  Obviously, he was on pole and led the most laps, but I think we had the superior car. We just didn’t have enough there at the end. Hats off to the entire NAPA Andretti Autosport team. They’ve been a fantastic all month, and I’m happy to get them a result. But unfortunately, nothing else matters here but winning.

“This one will be hard to get over.”

Ed Carpenter, Santino Ferrucci, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Conor Daly rounded out the top 10.

A wreck involving Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal during the end of a green-flag pit cycle changed the complexion of the race, putting Rossi in the lead after a major pit stop problem 40 laps earlier.

But Pagenaud snatched the lead from Rossi with an outside pass on the Lap 187 restart, setting up a spirited battle between the two over the final 35 miles.

Rossi had seemed in control in search of his second Indy 500 win, but disaster struck when he pitted from the lead on Lap 137. Because of a problem with a fuel probe, his team took several extra seconds fueling the No. 27 Dallara-Honda, knocking him from the lead.

The Andretti Autosport driver caught a break when the caution flew shortly afterward for a spin in the pits by Marcus Ericsson, leaving Rossi in fifth on the restart.

He gunned it on the outside, trying to pass Bourdais on the outside into Turn 1. But Rossi was unable to complete the pass and fell to sixth behind Andretti teammate Conor Daly.

After getting up to fourth, Rossi’s strategist, Rob Edwards, gambled with a short-pitting strategy and brought the car in with 32 laps to go, a lap after Pagenaud pitted from the lead.s

The first half of the race was relatively free of attrition.

Rookie sensation Colton Herta triggered the first yellow when the gearbox broke in his No. 88 Dallara-Honda on the opening laps. Unable to get into sixth gear, Herta’s engine quit while coming to the pits.

Kyle Kaiser, who was among the big stories in qualifying after bumping Fernando Alonso, was involved in the race’s first crash when he spun by himself at the exit to Turn 3. The Juncos Racing driver was checked and released from the care center after his second wreck of the month.

“We were coming out of the pits, and I made the wrong decision to go high and caught the marbes in Turn 3, and the car just spun around on us,” said Kaiser, who finished 31st.

Click here for full results from the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

Click here for the leader of each lap of the Indy 500.

Click here for the points calculator for each Indy 500 finisher.

NTT IndyCar points standings (through six races after the Indy 500): Pagenaud 250, Newgarden 249, Rossi 228, Dixon 203, Sato 203, Power 184, Hunter-Reay 157, Hinchcliffe 145, Pigot 133, Ferrucci 129.

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.