Josef Newgarden screams to Long Beach pole ahead of title contenders Palou, O’Ward

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LONG BEACH, California — Josef Newgarden might have found the perfect championship hype man just in time for NTT IndyCar Seires pole qualifying for Sunday’s season finale.

The Team Penske driver jump-started his longshot bid for the 2021 championship by capturing the pole position for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach as rival championship contenders Alex Palou (10th) and Pato O’Ward (eighth) failed to reach the final round of qualifying.

Meanwhile, Newgarden burst from the cockpit of his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet jubilantly screaming expletives at full volume and hugging teammates after turning a lap of 1 minute, 8.2241 seconds around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile circuit.

INDYCAR AT LONG BEACHDetails and how to watch Sunday’s race

“There’s some guy roaming around Long Beach that has just been yelling all weekend and getting us fired up,” Newgarden told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “And I was pretty much screaming that whole last lap. He’s at the track somewhere. And he’s just getting me hyped. He was getting all of us hyped. He needs to be in this pit box, but I was so happy.

“We’ve fought hard all year. We’ve had ups and downs. It’s very unprobable for us to win this championship, so our goal is to win the race tomorrow. Let’s finish our season on a high note. Everyone here deserves that, and we’ll see what happens. I think it’s pretty unlikely, but you never say never in this sport.”

Leading by 35 points over O’Ward and 48 over Newgarden, Palou remains in the catbird seat for his first title. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who will start 10th, needs a finish of only 11th or better in Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Palou and O’Ward both were hurt by a local yellow (for a stalled Will Power) at the end of the second session that ruined their final attempts at a fast lap to qualifying on the first three rows.

“It was maybe not the best of the sessions for us,” Palou told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “The good thing is we have the pace. It’s good to see Scott up there. So we’re going to pull for him now and see what we can do tomorrow to get in the top 10.

QUALIFYING RESULTS: Click here for Long Beach qualifying results | Round 1, Group 1 | Round 1, Group 2 Round 2 l Round 3

PRACTICE: Session I l Session II

“It’s OK, we have a good race car, and we’ll try to overtake some good cars tomorrow and just focus on ourselves trying to do the best we can. If we do a good job tomorrow, we’ll get that championship.”

O’Ward, who will start eighth, was upset with IndyCar race control, which penalized only Ed Jones for going too fast through the local yellow section. O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP team manager Taylor Kiel both said they had data that showed teammate Felix Rosenqvist (fifth) and at least one other driver had maintained speed in the sector. If their times were disallowed like Jones’, O’Ward’s No. 5 Dallara-Chevy would have advanced.

“Two cars we know for a fact went though the local yellow, but the results are official, so we’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got,” Kiel said. “It’s unfortunate when the stakes are so high at the moment.”

IndyCar officials refuted that argument and said Jones was the only driver who failed to slow through that sector.

“We should be in (the final round),” O’Ward told Lee. We were up on our last lap. I saw yellow flags, and there were yellow flags until the end of the session. Palou had to slow in front of me. I slowed up because that’s what you have to do whenever there’s yellow flags, and IndyCar is never consistent with their calls. They need to review that because we should be in the Fast Six right now.

“Crappy situation. Bummer, but we’ll see what we can do.”

Scott Dixon qualified second, followed by Helio Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud.

In a stunning development, Colton Herta failed to advance from the second group in Round 1 after pacing the first two practices with blistering lap times in his No. 26 Dallara-Honda.

Herta scrubbed the wall a few times while trying to squeeze an extra lap out of his primary black compound tires (a possible gamble to keep an extra set of faster alternate tires for the race, which his team did in winning the pole position at Nashville last month).

The contact damaged his steering, and when he returned to the track for another lap on the faster alternate red tires, he was unable to advance because of poor handling and qualified 14th.

“I slapped the wall there and broke the left rear toe link unfortunately,” Herta told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “It was a handful and eventually just broke. It was my fault, unfortunately. Make for an interesting race, though. Starting 14th, we’ve got two sets of new reds so could be a good thing. We’ll charge to the front tomorrow. You never know in this race. There’s possibility for a lot of yellows and lot of restarts. And we have a great car.”

So does Newgarden, who had failed to deliver in qualifying at Portland (starting 18th) and Laguna Seca (17th) but was able to post his series-leading fourth pole position of the season at Long Beach and 15th of his career.

He picked up a point for the pole but probably also will need another bonus by leading the most laps Sunday if he wants a realistic shot at his third title in five seasons.

“It’s been a little bit demoralizing the last couple of weekends where we had really good cars,” Newgarden said. “The team’s been doing a phenomenal job. Where we’ve started the last couple of races has absolutely just taken the life out of me a little bit. I’m still pumped that we were able to be quick here.

“I think we’ve got the package for sure with Team Chevy. We’ve accomplished our jobs today. Now we have to go out there tomorrow.”

He’s hoping to have the mysterious but knowledgeable loudmouth fan who apparently has been roaming the Long Beach paddock throughout the weekend — a bearded redhead in a white shirt with a massive Will Power tattoo on his forearm.

“Dude, he has jacked me up,” Newgarden said. “I just heard him the entire qualifying session. I tried to embody him as I got out of the car. I think I successfully did that. I apologize if anyone heard any of that. But I was pretty excited.

“He’s so loud. You can’t miss this person. He’s great. I wanted him in our pit box. I meant to tell him that. I forgot to tell him before qualifying. He’s awesome, though. Don’t get rid of him.”