LONG BEACH, Calif. — In a spirited battle of who could execute the same race strategy the best, Josef Newgarden and crew would come out on top of that discussion as he outdueled three different drivers throughout the course of 85 laps on the streets of Long Beach.
Newgarden, who started second behind pole-sitter Colton Herta, was able to beat Herta on the state pitstop strategy and then do the same thing against Alex Palou and Romain Grosjean to secure his second win in a row.
“It was a fight today, this was not an easy race to win,” Newgarden said. “I was working by butt off with Grosjean in the end. I was just trying to hold him off. I’ve been trying to win a race here for eleven years so I’m happy to get it done.”
Herta led the race until the first round of pitstops at around Lap 30. Newgarden pitted one lap later than Herta and a quicker pitstop gave Newgarden a successful overcut and put him out ahead of Herta.
However, neither driver inherited the lead. It instead fell to Alex Palou, who gambled and came in three laps earlier than Newgarden and Herta. His blistering pitstop gave him an undercut of both drivers and the lead.
“We took a gamble on the first stop,” Palou said. “We went from third to first. We were so close!”
Palou would lead Newgarden and Herta through the majority of the stint until the next round of pit stops. It became a game of Chicken to see who would flinch first and come into the pits.
Scott Dixon, who was floating with the leaders for a while, finched first to try and get a jump on the rest of the field. That triggered his teammate, Palou, to pit on the next lap. Newgarden would follow on the lap after, again successfully executing an overcut… this time on Palou.
“We did the out-lap before, that’s why we came out behind Newgarden,” Palou added as he would go on to finish third. “We’ll try again at Barber. We’re really proud of the work we’re doing and if we continue like that we’ll be in good shape.”
While that was going on, Herta was pushing hard to take advantage of the pitstop conundrum. He pushed a little too hard as he would crash on the lap he was due to come into the pits, ending his day after he had been favored to win.
After pitstops, Newgarden on cold tires held off Palou on warmer tires in a fierce duel around the circuit.
“The out-lap with Palou was so risky,” said Newgarden. “That was the difficult battle, but I think Grosjean had the better shot at getting it done.”
Newgarden would never relinquish the lead, despite a late caution involving Simon Pagenaud as well as another caution bunching up the field with nine laps left. Little did everyone know until late that second-year driver Romain Grosjean was moving up through the field on brand new and fast red tires, while everyone else was on the more durable black tires.
On the restart with five laps left, Grosjean found himself in second challenging Newgarden, both of whom had squeezed their push-to-pass, which helps drivers pass others, dry.
Newgarden fended off each challenge until Takuma Sato brought out the final caution of the day on the final lap, ending the race and handing the win to Newgarden.
“It was close, but not close enough,” Newgarden said. “It was going to be great, Josef was up there. He made one mistake, but I just couldn’t quite keep up. The first podium of the year, I’m happy with today.”
Newgarden, now securing the championship lead in the series over his teammate, Scott McLaughlin, is not bullish quite yet on what the result could mean for his championship aspirations later in the year.
“It’s too early to say, it’s only three races in,” he said. “What I feel right now is we are building on the 2-car. I’m feeling positive about where we are, but right now the goal is Indy. We’ll see how we do in the month of May.”
The win is Newgarden’s 22nd of his career and the third in a row for Team Penske this season.
Drivers have another three-week reprieve before a busy month of May. Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama is the next stop for the series on May 1. Then teams will move into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the events leading up to the Indianapolis 500.