Josef Newgarden wins at Texas; Jimmie Johnson finishes career-best sixth in IndyCar


FORT WORTH, Texas — Josef Newgarden nipped teammate Scott McLaughlin on a last-lap pass for the victory at Texas Motor Speedway while Jimmie Johnson shined Sunday with his best finish yet in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Newgarden, who led only three laps, slipped by off Turn 4 to edge McLaughlin, who led a race-high 186 laps but came up 0.0669 seconds short after scoring the first victory of his career in the Feb. 28 season opener at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It was the eighth-closest IndyCar finish in Texas history.

Marcus Ericsson finished third, followed by Will Power and Scott Dixon in a 248-lap race that turned into a fuel-savings run in the second half.

RESULTS, POINTS, STATS: A full rundown after Texas

‘JIMMIE MANIA’ BEGINSJohnson is eyeing an Indy 500 win after a career best at Texas

It was the 600th victory for team owner Roger Penske, who paid off a $600 bounty to Newgarden in victory lane.

Newgarden told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider in victory lane that it was the most dramatic victory of his career.

“Oh my gosh,” the two-time IndyCar champion said. “I was fuming in the car. We had all this traffic, and it wasn’t helping me and then right when I needed it to help me, literally last corner, last lap, traffic helped me out.

“Unbelievable PPG car in victory lane. Also, our XPEL car. How about Scott? I think he led like 95 percent of the laps. I hate doing that to a teammate, but I was going for it just like he was. We were driving hard. Man, I was loose. I was driving things sideways off of (Turns) 3 and 4 every lap.

“Last lap, last corner that’s what it’s all about at Texas. I hope we come back. Let’s come back.”

Johnson patiently worked his way to a career-best finish from a career-high 18th starting position, achieving his two postrace goals at the track where the seven-time NASCAR champion has a record seven Cup Series wins. He narrowly missed a top five when he had to slow down in the final 10 laps to conserve fuel, ceding fifth to teammate Dixon.

“Once we hit the halfway point in the race, I could sense and feel the car, and it became second nature, and off I went,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “I’m just very thankful for the support from Chip Ganassi Racing. We knew going oval racing would help, and today got us in a competitive mix.

“When I was racing with (Dixon) at the end, I thought that was pretty cool and pretty fun. We had a little trouble with our telemetry and didn’t know how much fuel I had saved, so I had to really go into conserve mode at the end and couldn’t fight for that top five, but what a special day. Just very thankful.”

The next oval on the schedule for Johnson is his expected debut in the Indy 500. As soon as he took the checkered flag Sunday, engineer Eric Cowdin radioed, “Let’s go win the Indy 500.”

“Yeah, no pressure,” Johnson said with a laugh. “This is a huge step in having a successful month of May at the Brickyard. Granted, it’s going to be a new track and a whole new learning curve but all the laps I’ve logged the last few days are going to be so helpful heading to the Indy 500.”

The race got off to a choppy start with four caution flags for 52 laps before halfway.

Andretti Autosport rookie Devlin DeFrancesco was involved in three yellows that took out five cars. The last eliminated his No. 29 Honda, the No. 15 of Graham Rahal and the No. 06 of Helio Castroneves.

DeFrancesco clipped the apron while attempting to go three wide on the bottom in Turn 3, sliding up into Rahal (who collected Castroneves).

“I was certainly trying to give Helio as much room as I can,” Rahal said. “It’s just tight confines. As I said to Devlin, I think he’s got a bright future, but he punted Takuma (Sato) earlier in the race. You’ve got to learn from these mistakes. It’s tight in there, but you’re hoping you realize you’ve got bail out at speeds like this.”

DeFrancesco earlier had a wobble that led to contact with the left front of Sato, who slid up to brush the SAFER barrier in Turn 2 and cause a caution on Lap 99.

On the lap after the Lap 113 start, rookie Kyle Kirkwood spun into the Turn 4 wall after losing control while trying to pass DeFrancesco on the outside.

“I was good at first, around outside of Devlin,” Kirkwood said. “He wiggled a little bit and came up on me and pushed me just too far. Once, I caught it, and the next time, there was no catching it. Unfortunately, I was just forced up there.”

After a disappointing 20th in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener, Alexander Rossi’s start to the 2022 season got even worse at Texas.

Rossi was ruled to have jumped the start, but before the Andretti Autosport driver could serve the drive-through penalty, his No. 27 Dallara-Honda began slowing on the backstretch to trigger the first caution on Lap 12.

“We were losing voltage from the start of the race,” Rossi told Lee. “It just got exponentially worse until the battery just died. Here we are.”

It was the second consecutive race at Texas in which Rossi retired within the first 20 laps. Last year, he crashed coming to the start.

He will leave Texas buried in the points through the first two races of a contract year that he said needed a strong start after two winless seasons.

“At least we saw the green flag, so that’s cool,” Rossi deadpanned. “At this point, what do you say? It is what it is. The car was amazing. The NAPA/AutoNation boys did a wonderful job, and all weekend, it was really nice to drive. Green-flag call. It’s a shame. I think the car was fast, and I had a really good idea of how to get to the front. To not get that opportunity is pretty sad.”

Andretti teammate Romain Grosjean also retired from the race with an engine problem during a caution period just past the 100-lap mark of his second oval start.

“We lost power; we need to look into it,” Grosjean told Snider. “Obviously not great to be scoring points today and also not great to get experience on track. The car felt really good, but there’s nowhere you can pass here, so it’s very frustrating. There’s still things I need to do better on ovals but getting there.”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

1 Comment

THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500