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.”