Fifth gear: Bommarito Automotive Group 500
Fifteen races less, two to go for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, and the chase is historic.
The teammates are separated by just three points at the top of the standings with two drivers from a rival team lurking a few points behind. A total of seven drivers are rightfully in the hunt for the Astor Challenge Cup as the series takes a short break ahead of its two-race trip to the West Coast to end the season.
The Portland Grand Prix at Portland International Raceway is next on the schedule on Sunday, September 4, with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey concluding the season on Sunday, September 11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
So many things to sort out, so many things to consider. Let’s start with Fifth Gear’s insight into how Saturday night’s rain-interrupted marathon at World Wide Technology Raceway set the stage for the stretch race.
Newgarden take third straight win
It’s been more than a decade since an INDYCAR SERIES driver won three straight at a given track – Sébastien Bourdais won three in a row at Long Beach from 2005 to 2007 – but that’s what Josef Newgarden accomplished in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline. But the #2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet driver had to wait.
Newgarden was second to race leader and teammate Penske Scott McLaughlin during the two-hour weather delay on lap 214 of 260. Newgarden was also seething during this time as he knew he would have been the leader of the race if he hadn’t was slowed down when he arrived in the pit lane by a car running in front of him. Newgarden was eager to get back into his car, and his eagerness showed.
A few minutes after 9 p.m. local time, the command to start the engines came and the green flag was waved. Newgarden wasted no time in establishing himself as the rider to beat, drifting to the high lane in Turn 2 to get some clean air for a spirited run on the backstretch. As McLaughlin led him into Turn 3, Newgarden steered his car downhill and passed convincingly for the lead, a position he held the final 36 laps without threat.
“This (pass) wasn’t really planned, I’m just going there,” Newgarden said of his state of mind. “I don’t know where I’m going, I’m just going. (McLaughlin) will go as hard as he (could) to the corner; I will go harder. It may work, it may not work. That’s my mentality sometimes. It seemed to work (in this case).
The victory was Newgarden’s fifth of the series-leading season and secured him the first tiebreaker – most wins during the season – when the final standings are set next month. Newgarden also tied within three points of teammate Will Power (#12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) for the series lead as Power, the NTT P1 award winner, finished sixth.
Big day for Malukas
As series rookie David Malukas mentioned after the race, there were two winners on Saturday night, and he was the other to deliver his best result of his young career.
The 20-year-old driver of Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 18 HMD Honda HMD stormed the lead pack in the final laps, overhauling McLaughlin’s No. 3 Odyssey Battery Team Penske Chevrolet with just under two laps to go. Malukas was on Newgarden’s tail at the checkered flag, suggesting that if the race had lasted a lap or two longer he might have taken his first series win and the first race win for a rookie driver since that Alexander Rossi won the 2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. .
Before Saturday night, Malukas’ best result had been eighth (in Race 2 last month at Iowa Speedway), but that result didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, the Chicago native has grown in confidence throughout the season, especially since the ‘500’ where he was the highest-ranked rookie in 16th. He had started in the top eight of five of eight races since Indy and finished in the lead lap of all oval races except for Race 1 at Iowa, when he was a lap down 14th in the middle. of Newgarden rule.
The performance result has Malukas just 11 points behind Christian Lundgaard (#30 Mi-Jack Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) for the Rookie of the Year award. Lundgaard finished 19th at WWTR.
Remember, Malukas is still not 21
Credit series officials with being ready for a driver not yet 21 to step onto the podium and earn the right to celebrate. Malukas received grape juice instead of traditional champagne.
“They have the confetti, it’s a lot,” Malukas said of his first impressions of the post-race celebration. “Wow, there’s a lot going on. (But) I have grape juice.
Malukas said Newgarden let him spray “the real stuff” from his bottle, which seemed fair.
“It actually makes more sense because I’m spraying it away from me, not towards me,” he said of the champagne. “I was like, ‘Why didn’t they give me the real stuff? Maybe they gave them the grape juice, but that’s not fun. I don’t know. Maybe that I can just tell them that I’m going to shut my mouth.
Grape juice will be needed again if Malukas finishes on the podium in either of the final two races of the season, as his 21st birthday is September 27.
Malukas added that he didn’t know what to do once the race was over because he hadn’t earned a podium spot since finishing second in both Indy Lights races presented by Cooper Tires last October at the Mid- Ohio Sports Car Race.
“Basically (I was) just nervous because I hadn’t done it in a while, so I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “To even cross the start/finish line, it was great, I was celebrating. (But) where am I going, what should I do?
“Fortunately, McLaughlin, I just looked down on him, (I was looking at him) down. I thought, ‘OK, I’m just going to copy him.’ Yes, I did. I think it went well.”
Mixed results for title contenders
Team Penske is happy with the way Saturday night’s race ended, although they would have preferred if McLaughlin hadn’t lost second place to Malukas late in the race. Still, the team’s three championship challengers finished first, third and sixth, important points-winning positions.
Meanwhile, Chip Ganassi Racing didn’t have such a good night. Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Bryant Honda), Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Alex Palou (No. 10 American Legion Honda) finished seventh, eighth and ninth respectively, which lost them some ground. Roger Penske’s Three. The other title contender, Pato O’Ward, finished fourth in the #5 Chevrolet Arrow McLaren SP.
At the top of the standings are Power and Newgarden, which are separated by three points. Dixon and Ericsson are 14 and 17 points off the series lead, with the other three starting to fade from the top tier. Palou is fifth in the standings, at 43 points, with McLaughlin sixth (minus-54) followed by O’Ward (minus-58).
The results in Portland will bring immense clarity to the championship. Assuming all series regulars participate in the final two events, those eligible for the title at Laguna Seca will need to be within 49 points of the lead. And remember, the first tiebreaker is the number of race wins, which gives Newgarden (a career-high five) a big advantage. Dixon, McLaughlin and O’Ward each have two wins.
Said Newgarden: “As much as I want to (become a three-time champion), believe me I do and I will work to be that person, we also have to make sure that we remember that this is about all of us and that It’s all about the efforts we’ve made. We have to make sure that a car wins the championship.
Competitive racing, furious finish
Until the red flag for rain, Saturday night’s race had only one warning, that of Lap 145 when Jack Harvey brushed the wall at Turn 4 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s #45 Honda Hy-Vee Racing. Given the lack of saves, the action on the short oval was intense, and the stats back it up.
There were 520 passes in the race, the most since INDYCAR began keeping that stat at WWTR when it returned to the track in 2017. Of those, 179 passes were for position, the most registered at the WWTR.
Newgarden credited the rubberized high lane for improving the show.
“I think we made some progress this weekend, really,” he said. “The additional (30-minute) session (Friday evening) was positive; they worked that way a bit more. We used it; I used it. Never thought I’d get up there, (but) it was definitely usable.
Newgarden added that running at WWTR “would be awesome, like gnarly” if a second groove became the norm.