ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — Josef Newgarden insists this season hasn’t been overly frustrating for Team Penske even without a victory to show for it yet.
Perhaps this is the week Newgarden or another Team Penske driver finally breaks through. This is the longest Team Penske has gone without a win to start a season since 1999, and it finished that year winless.
“We’ve been well within striking distance.” said Newgarden, who earned the pole position for Sunday’s IndyCar race at Road America.
Indeed, Team Penske’s had plenty of close calls through the first eight races of the season. It just hasn’t quite closed the deal.
That was particularly apparent during last weekend’s doubleheader at the Raceway at Belle Isle Park in Detroit. Team Penske’s Will Power seemed in control of the first race until his car wouldn’t restart after a red flag. Newgarden was edged by Pato O’Ward in the second race.
“We’re in the hunt every weekend, so I’m not dissatisfied with where we’re at,” Newgarden said. “We just need to pick it up here and hopefully have some of these results turn our way. That’s really what we need here for this second half, just to get a couple of things turning our way. I think other than that it’s been a really good year for the most part.”
Newgarden earned the pole Saturday by posting a fastest lap of 1 minute, 46.0186 seconds on a road course that extends just over 4 miles and features 14 turns. He will be joined on the front row by Colton Herta. Jack Harvey will start third.
Three of the top six qualifiers were Team Penske drivers, with Will Power fourth and Simon Pagenaud sixth.
Newgarden benefited from his choice of tires.
Drivers have their choice of two different tire compounds marked by a red or black stripe on the shoulder of the tire. The red tires are softer than the black ones and often faster initially but tend to degrade within a lap or two.
Newgarden opted to use black tires in the “Fast Six” final round of qualifying while the other drivers were using reds.
“We made an early decision on that,” Newgarden said. “That’s not always worked out. There’s been other cases, even this year, where you thought maybe the blacks would be better in a Fast Six scenario, and they haven’t been. This is the first time you’ve seen it truly be better.”
Herta expects tire usage to be a major factor in Sunday’s race as well.
“I think it’s going to be a tire race,” Herta said. “Tire deg (degradation) is going to be the talk of it. Whoever has the best car that’s nailed down at the rear the most, if they can save those rear tires, especially on the reds, is going to be the best.
"It’s surprising, too, because even the black tires don’t seem to be so good with deg this weekend, too. There is deg at a similar rate of deg with the reds.”
Competitors at Road America include seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR driver Cody Ware and former Formula One teammates Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. This represents the IndyCar debut for both Magnussen and Ware.
Magnussen replaces Felix Rosenqvist, who won at Road America last year but was injured in a crash last week at Detroit. Magnussen and Grosjean drove for Haas on the Formula One circuit in 2020.
Magnussen isn’t the only substitute in the field. Oliver Askew is filling in for Rinus VeeKay, who broke his clavicle in a cycling accident Monday.
Although this marks Magnussen’s first IndyCar event, he’s been open about his interest in doing this more often.
“It’s never been a secret that IndyCar is something that I am pretty passionate about. It’s nothing new,” Magnussen said this week. “My dad raced IndyCars in the mid-90s when I was only a small little kid, and I can remember back then that I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to do that one day.’ ”
O’Ward, who will start 10th on Sunday, owns a one-point lead over Alex Palou in the points standings.
Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and VeeKay make up the rest of the top five in the points race. The second five includes Simon Pagenaud, Marcus Ericsson, Graham Rahal, Herta and Takuma Sato.
SHARING THE WEALTH
The eight races so far this season have been won by seven different drivers. O’Ward became the first repeat winner of the year last weekend when he won at Detroit to go along with his victory at Texas.
Other winners so far this season include Palou, Herta, Dixon, VeeKay, Ericsson and Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves.
A week after his toughest IndyCar race to date, Jimmie Johnson has shown marked improvement at Road America. He was as high as sixth on the speed chart late in Saturday’s final practice session before finishing 14th of 25 drivers.
The IndyCar rookie starts 23rd on Sunday but has far better pace than he did when he first arrived in Detroit last week and was five seconds behind the leader at the start of the doubleheader weekend.
“This is a beautiful facility,” Johnson said. “I’ve always wanted to race at this racetrack. It’s really met expectations.”
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