Newgarden charges to Phoenix Grand Prix win after late strategy gamble

by Jordan Groves

Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion, Josef Newgarden, has won the 2018 Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway. The American, driving the #1 Team Penske Chevrolet, took his first victory of the 2018 season under the lights in Arizona after a late strategic gamble.

When Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Ed Jones hit the wall on lap 229 of 250, there was a tricky decision for the team’s and drivers. They could either pit for fresh Firestone tyres and hope that they have the grip to make up the lost positions, or they could stay out on the track and hope that the short number of laps meant that they could hold onto their track position.

Newgarden had been leading the race at the time of the caution, but he was one of a handful of drivers who elected to make a pit-stop for new tyres. He would come back out of the pits in fourth place, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport‘s Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe, as well as Andretti Autosport‘s Alexander Rossi, just ahead of him.

The race would restart with just eight laps remaining, but Newgarden immediately used his tyres to good effect. He got a great getaway when the green flag flew to beat Rossi in the drag race to turn one, but then he used his speed to hold the car around the outside of Hinchcliffe through turns one and two. He managed to complete the stunning move off of the corner and then had his sights set on hunting down Wickens for the race lead.

It wouldn’t take long for Newgarden to get onto the gearbox of Wickens, he was there within a lap of getting into second place. However, Wickens was not going to roll over for the reigning champion. For a rookie who has never raced on an oval before this weekend, the Canadian SPM driver put on a defensive show that made him look as though he was a veteran as he managed to hold off the much faster Penske driver for numerous laps.

Eventually, though, Newgarden found a way by. After several bold attempts, Josef kept his car alongside Wickens on the outside at turn one and two and used his extra grip to sweep his way into the lead of the race with just four laps to go. From there, there was nothing that Wickens, or anybody, could do.

On lap 250, the #1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet crossed the line to take the 2018 Phoenix Grand Prix victory, a win that would be Newgarden’s eighth and Penske’s one hundred and ninety-eighth in the series. It would also give Josef the championship lead heading into next weekend’s third round of the championship at Long Beach.

“The team did such a good job,” Newgarden said. “The car was good, the strategy was better, the pit stops were the best. I’m really proud of them and what they did. I think they deserved the win tonight.”

“I think we were a top-five car tonight, for sure, but I struggled a little bit with the balance, so it was difficult for me to force the issue until we got to the end when I had a tire advantage. I knew I could force the issue. I kind of bided my time for that. I was trying to be calm tonight and make it to the finish.”

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

After a stunning performance on his oval debut, Robert Wickens would take a superb second place in the #6 SPM Honda. The Canadian has been the revelation of the season so far after coming so close to winning on series debut at St. Petersburg before coming to Phoenix and running as strong as he did.

Third place would go to Alexander Rossi. The #27 Honda driver rallied back from a penalty early on in the race after hitting a pit-crew member during an early pit-stop. The penalty would put Rossi a lap down, but he would blitz his way through the field to come back and take a second consecutive podium finish.

Scott Dixon came back from a poor qualifying result to take fourth place in the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Ryan Hunter-Reay would finish just behind in fifth place having led the race early on. After being in the leading trio on the final restart, James Hinchcliffe’s fading tyres saw him fall down the order in the closing laps to finish sixth, just ahead of Ed Carpenter in seventh.

Tony Kanaan took eighth place for A.J. Foyt Enterprises, with Graham Rahal in ninth place for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It was somewhat of a disappointing weekend for RLLR, as many may have been hoping their strong form in pre-season testing at ISM Raceway would have led to a stronger result.

Last year’s Phoenix race winner, Simon Pagenaud, would take tenth place in the #22 Penske. In eleventh place would be Takuma Sato, who was the last driver to finish on the lead lap.

Further back, pole-sitter Sebastien Bourdais was also caught out by an early pit-road penalty after hitting a crew member. However, unlike Rossi, Bourdais was unable to make as many moves to get back to the front. He would finish in a lowly thirteenth place in the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda.

It was a difficult weekend for Carlin. The British team’s first oval race in IndyCar saw their drivers, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton, finish multiple laps down in seventeenth and eighteenth respectively. A.J. Foyt’s Matheus Leist was the last driver to see the chequered flag, with the rookie being relegated to the lower regions of the leaderboard after losing his left-rear wheel on a pit-stop.

Four drivers failed to finish the race. Ed Jones hit the outside wall late in the race to bring out the second and final caution. The contact with the wall would put him out of the running. It was a similar fate for the remaining three retirees.  Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser would retire on lap 176 after hitting the wall, as would former race-leader Will Power on lap 153. The final retirement came from Pietro Fittipaldi, who after showing speed throughout the weekend would, unfortunately, bring out the first caution of the race after hitting the wall on lap forty-one.

The next round of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series takes place next weekend. The 2018 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will be run on April 15.

Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series – Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix – Race results:

11Josef NewgardenUSATeam PenskeLeader
26Robert Wickens (R)CANSchmidt Peterson Motorsport+2.9946
327Alexander RossiUSAAndretti Autosport+3.4890
49Scott DixonNZLChip Ganassi Racing+3.8175
528Ryan Hunter-ReayUSAAndretti Autosport+4.0122
65James HinchcliffeCANSchmidt Peterson Motorsport+9.4497
720Ed CarpenterUSAEd Carpenter Racing+9.4731
814Tony KanaanBRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises+9.8650
915Graham RahalUSARahal Letterman Lanigan Racing+10.1747
1022Simon PagenaudFRATeam Penske+10.3247
1130Takuma SatoJAPRahal Letterman Lanigan Racing+10.9443
1298Marco AndrettiUSAAndretti Autosport Herta+1 Lap
1318Sebastien BourdaisFRADale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan+1 Lap
1421Spencer PigotUSAEd Carpenter Racing+1 Lap
1588Gabby ChavesCOLHarding Racing+1 Lap
1626Zach Veach (R)USAAndretti Autosport+1 Lap
1723Charlie KimballUSACarlin+2 Laps
1859Max ChiltonGBRCarlin+3 Laps
194Matheus Leist (R)BRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises+9 Laps
2010Ed JonesUAEChip Ganassi RacingDNF
2132Kyle KaiserUSAJuncos RacingDNF
2212Will PowerAUSTeam PenskeDNF
2319Pietro Fittipaldi (R)BRADale Coyne RacingDNF

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