FORT WORTH, Texas. — The first oval race of the year is always a curveball for the teams of the NTT IndyCar Series, especially when it’s at Texas Motor Speedway.
Josef Newgarden showed how unpredictable the race can be every year by leading only the final lap of the race to earn his first win of the year and second in a row for Team Penske.
Newgarden was second heading into the final lap of the mile and a half long tri-oval, stalking his teammate, Scott McLaughlin, who was in the lead and had led all but a handful of the race’s 248 laps.
“It was a race of patience, for sure, for us at least,” Newgarden said. “We tried to manage all the way throughout. We had a lot of adversities to work through. It actually worked out pretty well. We cycled up to second.”
That was after the first round of pit stops, which came not long after the first caution flag flew for Alexander Rossi, who had to retire his Andretti Autosport machine 13 laps into the race with electrical issues.
Rossi would be one of three Andretti cars to exit the race with Romain Grosjean having similar issues in his debut at Texas, and Devlin DeFrancesco making a rookie mistake by taking a restart three-wide into turn three. DeFrancesco got loose and spun up into Graham Rahal who collected Helio Castroneves.
The cautions played into the favor of the drivers in the front, as they were able to save enough fuel to go full-song in the race’s last 50 laps.
But that had to come for Newgarden who slipped back to fourth on the final restart following the aforementioned three-car crash.
“I just got my doors blown off by everybody,” Newgarden said of the restart. “There was a ton of fuel to save at that point. Seemed like no one was worried about doing that right away. I must have went back to sixth or seventh. Kind of methodically got back forward.”
That methodology paid off as both he and McLaughlin got the order to put the pedal to the metal with 20 laps remaining.
McLaughlin led 186 laps of the race and was poised to lead one more on the final revolution, but McLaughlin was caught by lap traffic which allowed Newegarden to close the gap and used the rarely used outside line to make the winning pass out of turn four for the win.
“I’m gutted. I’ll reevaluate everything over the next few days,” McLaughlin said of the second-place finish. “But it’s funny, like last year I was fist-pumping and jumping out of the car finishing second. I’m like today, It sucks. That’s how it is.”
The win for Newgarden is the 21st of his career in IndyCar and is also Roger Penske’s 600th as a team owner.
Marcus Ericsson secured a podium finish in third with Will Power and Scott Dixon round out the top five.
But also of note is Jimmie Johnson, who despite this being his first oval race in his short IndyCar career and staring 18th on the grid, battled through the field to finish 6th.
Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, had turned over 11,000 laps in his NASCAR career at Texas and said he would rely on that experience to see him through.
“What a two-day adventure this has been,” Johnson said. “To be able to get enough laps in the race, to feel the tires from start to finish, green-flag stops, being in dirty air, just how uncomfortable and treacherous that is. All of those little mistakes and little moments gave me a sense of the car and helped me feel really how to drive this car, how to create speed.”
Johnson said this was just the confidence boost he needed as the series gets closer to the Indianapolis 500.
But before they get to Indy, the series must make quick stops at Long Beach (Apr. 10) and Barber Motorsports Park (May 1).
Despite finishing second today, Scott McLaughlin still holds the lead in the championship standings heading into the race at Long Beach over his teammate Will Power in second.