- Jul 23, 2014
Newgarden made a dynamite start on lap 1, swooping past second row starters Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon at the first corner. By the time he'd passed Will Power at turn 16 he'd already moved from 5th to 2nd right behind polesitter Helio Castroneves, who led the fourth consecutive front-row lockout this season by Team Penske. Newgarden continued to put the pressure on the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner throughout the entire opening stanza, and when the leaders pitted on lap 19 during the first full course caution caused by an awkward collision involving Power and Takuma Sato, Newgarden emerged with the lead, which he'd hold for 46 of the 90 laps run.
Power was slapped with a drive-thru penalty as race stewards deemed he had caused an avoidable accident by pulling out of pit lane in the path of an at-speed Sato as they approached turn 2. The defending IndyCar Series champion was not happy with that outcome, but he did recover very well to eventually finish 4th.
The second full-course yellow came out on lap 34 as a passing attempt by Stefano Coletti on James Jakes went awry - Coletti dove down to the inside of Jakes at Turn 5, they made contact and both drivers spun at the apex of the corner. Jakes stalled his car momentarily, requiring assistance from the Holmatro Safety Team to get going again and losing a lap in the process. Interestingly enough, both Coletti and Jakes participated in the inaugural GP3 Series championship in 2010, where they ranked 8th and 9th, well ahead of the 18th-placed driver that year, a young American driving for Carlin named...Josef Newgarden.
That second full-course yellow prompted an alternate race strategy from one of the front runners, as Graham Rahal - who, ominously, was the only Honda driver to qualify inside the top ten on Saturday - stayed out as Newgarden and Castroneves pitted on lap 35. Rahal would stretch his second stint out to lap 48, and assuming the rest of the race ran without interruptions, Rahal would be able to push harder on his last stint than Newgarden, who would have to drive a longer final stint and thus have to conserve fuel and tyres to make it to the end.
And indeed the race did run without any other caution flags, and indeed, race strategy did become a factor at a track where passing comes at a premium. That doesn't mean, however, that overtaking was non-existent - as veteran drivers such as Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya made some very bold moves as the race entered the final stages.
But once Rahal got up to speed following his final pit stop on lap 70 - pitting five laps after Newgarden made his final stop - he began a charge that brought the thousands in attendance in Birmingham to their feet. From fifth, having already made quick work of Power, he passed two-time and defending race winner Ryan-Hunter Reay on the outside line of turn 5 with eleven laps remaining. He did it again with nine to go as he moved past Helio Castroneves and onto a podium place. With seven laps remaining, and having already used all of his push-to-pass tokens, he was chasing down second-placed Scott Dixon and the lead wasn't entirely out of reach, driving flat-out laps as those in front were conserving fuel.
On the final lap, Rahal powered past Dixon at the exit of turn 9 for second, to the roar of the thousands in attendance. Perhaps carrying the number 15 was a good luck charm in the state of Alabama - where the University of Alabama football team recognizes having won that same number of national championships, a statistic that the locals will be very happy to remind you of.
Ultimately, Newgarden had enough to make it to the finish for his much-anticipated first victory in the IndyCar Series. Born in Hendersonville, Tennessee - just north of Nashville and a few hours away from Birmingham - the 24-year-old won what was effectively his home race, leading Rahal to a 1-2 finish for two young, popular American drivers. Dixon, carrying Coca-Cola sponsorship, rounded off the podium, with Power and Hunter-Reay completing the top five.
Newgarden's victory was his first of course, the first for the newly-formed CFH Racing team. Sarah Fisher, the co-owner of Newgarden's #67 car, became a winning car owner for the first time since the 2011 race at Kentucky Speedway - won by Ed Carpenter, now a co-owner of CFH racing. Rahal took his first podium finish in nearly a year (Detroit 2014), and Dixon his sixth consecutive podium finish at Barber in as many races - to move within thirteen points of Montoya - who still holds the championship lead by three points over his Penske teammate Castroneves, after the polesitter ran out of fuel on the last lap - finishing 15th, one place behind Montoya.
No driver ever forgets the joy of their first victory, and those in attendance were more than happy in sharing that jubilation with young Josef Newgarden - especially those avid supporters of his who had anticipated this moment for the last three years.
In the championships of the Mazda Road to Indy, Spencer Pigot snapped Ed Jones' three-race win streak and moved into the championship lead by sweeping both races of the Legacy Indy Lights 100. Malaysian driver Weiron Tan and American championship leader Neil Alberico split the honors in the Pro Mazda Championship, and Cape Motorsports teammates Aaron Telitz and Nico Jamin each won a race in the USF2000 National Championship.
Festivities for the month of May begin in two weeks with the second running of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, which will serve as the prelude to the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 on 24 May.