Josef Newgarden wins at IMS, cuts into Scott Dixon’s points lead

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Josef Newgarden won the opener of the Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, taking a major chunk out of Scott Dixon’s NTT IndyCar Series championship lead with the victory Friday.

The two-time and defending series champion started second and cruised to a 14.2940-second margin over Alexander Rossi with sound strategy and consistently strong laps in his No. 1 Dallara-Chevrolet around the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

“We had a rocket ship,” said Newgarden, who led a race-high 34 of 85 laps in his first victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (whose road course statistically had been Newgarden’s worst track prior to Friday with a 14.57 average finish; the Indy 500 on the IMS oval was his second worst). “I knew we did yesterday in qualifying. I was so surprised by how quick the car was.

RESULTS, POINTS: Full stats package from Race 1 of the Harvest GP

WHAT DRIVERS SAID: Postrace quotes Friday from IMS

“It was a great fight today. It was strategy, it was close combat, it was everything you wanted in an IndyCar race, and I had the quickest car. Team Chevy did an amazing job. I’m pumped to be up here. I’ve always wanted to get up here. I want to get up here during the ‘500,’ but this is cool.”

With his third IndyCar victory of the season and 17th of his career, the Team Penske driver cut Dixon’s lead to 40 points with two races remaining — Saturday’s closer of the Harvest GP (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) and the Oct. 25 season finale on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Newgarden said he still needed “perfect days” over the last two races to overtake Dixon.

“If you’d given us a couple of those races where we caught the bad yellows, we’d really be in this fight,” Newgarden told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s almost a shame what kind of deficit we have in the points, but this team has been unbelievable.

“They’ve been the quickest on pit lane all year. They’ve done a great job, a really great job. They deserve to be in this championship fight. So, it’s still a bit of a hill. We made it smaller, which is really good news. But I’ve said we’ve got to have three perfect races to the finish, and this is one of them down. We’ve got two to go.”

Dixon had carried a 72-point lead over Newgarden into the race weekend and lost a point Thursday when he qualified 12th while Newgarden made the front row. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was stuck in traffic for much of the 85-lap race and finished ninth, losing two spots by going off course with two laps remaining.

It was among many mistakes in an action-packed race that was among the season’s best for contact and close racing. Among the highlights: Herta locked his wheels up trying to fend off Newgarden, Will Power made an excellent save off the final turn, and a collision between Santino Ferrucci and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

With a runner-up, Rossi scored his third consecutive podium (on the heels of a third and second at Mid-Ohio Sports Course) and his best finish on the IMS road course.

But the Andretti Autosport driver was extremely upset with IndyCar stewards after being penalized for exceeding track limits by crossing a boundary line.

It was the second costly penalty at Indy this year for Rossi, who also was docked for contact in the pits with Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato in the Aug. 23 race.

“I did two wheels over the white line,” the 2016 Indy 500 winner told NBC Sports pit reporter Dillon Welch. “I didn’t go over our talked-about reference point and still got a penalty. Two times at Indianapolis, weird penalties, I don’t know what to say.

“The car was great. Hats off to the NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda boys. We’ve never been good here (on the IMS road course), so to get on the podium is fantastic. Great testament to Honda. It’s been a huge effort for the team to find some sort of pace here. The fact that we did that is good. Disappointed because it’s weird that these penalties just keep happening. Not a lot of explanation on our side.”

Rinus VeeKay, who started on pole position for the first time in his rookie season, was third, followed by Herta (who led 29 laps) and Felix Rosenqvist.

One of the best battles was between VeeKay and Herta, continuing a fierce rivalry that started in the Aug. 30 race at World Wide Racing Technology Raceway at Gateway. The 20-year-olds traded the lead during the first three laps, and VeeKay fought his way past Herta onto the podium with three laps left.

“It was a fun day with Colton,” VeeKay told Lee. “He was very quick midway through the race. Everyone is on their best level here. Tough race. First podium, very happy with it. But I think second was possible. Not 100 percent satisfied.”

Friday’s race featured a limited crowd for an IndyCar race at IMS for the first time this season. Track owner Roger Penske, who also owns Newgarden’s car, greeted fans upon their arrival Thursday at Gate 1.

Newgarden said he got a little emotional as he and his winning ride were given a lift up to the IMS Winner’s Circle on a new elevator installed by Penske, who has spent millions upgrading the storied facility since January.

“I don’t think I can think about the race, I’m so excited to be up here on this platform,” Newgarden said. “I wish I was up here with ‘The Captain.’ (Penske has) done such an amazing job with this facility, and to see people back here socially distanced in the stands at least getting to watch a race, I’m sure he’s really happy today, and I’m happy to be up here representing him and Team Penske, everyone at IndyCar”, IMS. Thank you to everyone that came out.”

Rolex 24 at Hour 8: Acuras, Cadillacs look strong in GTP; tough times for Tower in LMP2

Rolex 24 at Daytona
James Gilbert/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The premier hybrid prototype era of the Rolex 24 at Daytona began with a relatively smooth start Saturday through the Hour 8 mark.

Though two of the new Grand Touring Prototype cars fell out of contention within the first six hours, seven cars representing four big-money manufacturers were setting the pace (albeit conservatively at times) after eight of 24 hours in the endurance race classic.

The Cadillacs of Alex Lynn (No. 02, Chip Ganassi Racing) and Jack Aitken (No. 31 of Action Express) held the top two spots with a third of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed.

RUNNING ORDER: Standings through eight hours l By class

Brendon Hartley was running third in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura, followed by Nick Tandy in the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963, Renger van der Zande in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac and Tom Blomqvist in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura.

The No. 24 BMW M Team RLL BMW M Hybrid V8 ’s No. 24  was the first GTP car a lap down, but in better shape than its sister. The No. 25 BMW pulled off track for major repairs near the end of the first hour and was classified 133 laps down in 59th in 61 cars.

Misfortune also befell the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport, which was forced into the garage for a battery change with 18 hours and five minutes remaining. The 963 was 19 laps down in 22nd.

But all things considered, the debut of the GTPs had belied the hand-wringing and doomsayer predictions that had hung over Daytona the past two weeks. Cadillac Racing’s three V-LMDh cars had avoided mechanical problems (needing only typical body repairs for the front end of the No. 01 and rear end of the No. 31 for minor collisions in heavy traffic throughout the 61-car field).

Its stiffest competition seemed to be the Acura ARX-06s, which led more than 100 laps in the first eight hours.

Pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist built a sizeable lead in the No. 60 (which won last year’s Rolex 24) while leading the first 60 laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.

“That was my longest time in the car since we got it,” said Blomqvist, who led the car to the IMSA premier championship last season. “We’re driving it into the unknown now. We’ve done everything we can. We know it’s a strong, fast car, but there are so many things to learn it almost feels like we’re winging it. It’s a constant learning curve, for both me as a driver but for the whole team. We’ve had a good start to the race, but there’s a lot of race to go and anything can happen.”

The No. 60 lost positions when Helio Castroneves spun just short of seven hours remaining but later soldiered back into the lead with Blomqvist.

“That was a wild ride,” Castroneves said. “I just got caught up in the moment and I’m not sure what happened. It locked the rear so unexpectedly. Certainly, the car is fast. There’s a lot of traffic. It was very, very difficult. The Acura has good pace so far, and we are learning a lot in a short time.”

Two days after predicting the race would be an “old-school endurance race” with conservative driving and setups, Simon Pagenaud said his forecast has been realized.

“Totally,” the Meyer Shank Racing said after completing his first turn behind the wheel of the No. 60 shortly before Castroneves’ incident. “It’s been rare that I’ve been saving equipment this much here. In any of my experience in sports car racing, I’ve rarely driven this cool, basically trying to protect everything. It’s what we’ve got to do. And we’ve got the advantage having pace with the Acura.

“So for us, this time of the race, we’ve just got to build the foundation of our race. There’s really no need to dive into the Bus Stop on somebody right now. Six hours to go is a whole different story. If we’re there, there’s no problem. We’ll do it. We have the capacity to do that, which is honestly such a luxury. But at this point to me, we’re just going to save the equipment, get there and see where we are because the car is extremely fast.”

Pagenaud was involved in one when he was warned by IMSA stewards for “incident responsibility” on a spin involving the No. 8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 that is being co-driven by Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin (two of the 10 active IndyCar drivers in the 2023 Rolex 24).

Tower driver-owner John Farano was in the car at the time, but Pagenaud joked he thought it was Newgarden, his former IndyCar teammate at Team Penske.

“I thought the Tower car, that must be Newgarden,” Pagenaud cracked. “Was it him? Don’t tell me. I know it was him. Doesn’t matter. Let me just take it. I’m going to say it’s him. Please tell him I said that when you see him.

The 2019 Indy 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar champion chalked up the run-in with Farano as “a misunderstanding. He hesitated passing the car ahead of him and gave me the left side, so I dove in on the outside, and he basically released the brake and hit my rear. So you could say it’s on me. You could say it’s on him. Honestly, I was confused as to what happened because I just saw him spin in the mirror. I don’t think we had contact.”

It already was a long day for the No. 8 Tower, which had to pull off the track on the first lap. A water bottle fitting leaked onto the ORECA LMP2 07’s electronic control unit, which malfunctioned. The team lost 10 laps while being towed to the pits and repaired as the first yellow flag flew less than five minutes into the race for the incident.

By the time Newgarden handed off the car to McLaughlin, the No. 8 still was nine laps down with eight hours to go.

Last year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona LMP2 winner, which also featured two IndyCar stars in Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward, rallied from five laps down, but Newgarden lamented missing three opportunities to regain a lap under yellow.

“We’re trying to chip away at it; it’s just difficult,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I feel solid, and it’s very fun to be in the mix the first time. Very special to be out there in the action. Just wish we were on the lead lap. Our pace was solid. We were strongest on track, but that’s going to change in the later hours with the hot shoes in the car. It’s not going to be easy to pull laps back on this field. It’s a very stacked contingent. They’re all good teams, lot of good drivers. Put ourselves in a hole not a good situation to be in, keep fighting at it. Felt like our pace was good.

“It’s not looking good now. You get toward the end of race, you won’t gain laps back on pace. There are too many good teams and drivers. … We need 8 or 9 yellows to go our way. It just doesn’t look good. But never say never. What if all the GTPs just blow up? I don’t know what’s going to happen. They look really good right now. This is not what everyone predicted. Let’s see. You just never know in racing.”