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Grand Prix of Long Beach has been an elusive race for Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden wins IndyCar’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden pumps his fists while standing on his car with his crew being him as he celebrates his victory as he wins the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10, 2019.
(Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/Tribune News Service)

Josef Newgarden won the NTT IndyCar Series title two years ago and he’s leading the point standings early this season.

But there’s a hole in Newgarden’s career: He hasn’t won the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, one of the most prominent races in the IndyCar season.

In seven starts at Long Beach, the Team Penske driver’s best finish was third in 2017. The Tennessean is hopeful that his fast start this season will continue in the race Sunday on Long Beach’s street course.

“We’re off to such a great start this season with nothing but top-five finishes so far, and we’re really hoping to continue that streak as we head into Long Beach,” Newgarden said.

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Those finishes included winning the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. Newgarden, 28, then finished second at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and placed fourth last weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama after climbing from a 16th starting spot.

That’s given Newgarden a 27-point lead in the championship standings over second-place Scott Dixon, who won his fifth IndyCar title last year. Dixon, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, won the Long Beach race in 2015.

Qualifying for this year’s race is Saturday, and Newgarden said his No. 2 Chevrolet-powered car can’t start deep in the field again if he hopes to reach victory lane.

“If we’re going to win a race, we’ve got to start in the top-five,” Newgarden said.

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He’ll have his hands full with veterans Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay, based on the two practice sessions Friday.

Hunter-Reay was fastest in the first session and Dixon was second. The two 38-year-olds reversed spots in the second practice, with Dixon topping the speed chart with a lap averaging 104.505 mph on the 11-turn, 1.97-mile circuit, followed by Hunter-Reay.

“It’s a good first day, we definitely learned a lot,” said Hunter-Reay, an Andretti Autosport driver who won the Long Beach race in 2010 and the series title in 2012. “Here at Long Beach we’ve always been very competitive.”

Dixon said his No. 9 Honda-powered machine also was stout.

“The car feels like it’s in the window,” he said, but added: “There are so many good car and driver combinations.”

Newgarden was fourth in the second practice and Alexander Rossi, the Californian who won last year’s race and is a teammate of Hunter-Reay, was sixth fastest.

Rossi won from the pole position a year ago, and a reporter asked him to weigh the importance of starting first at Long Beach.

“There’s a huge advantage that you have from running [with] clean air” from the first starting spot, he said. “It allows you to make the tires go much farther. You can kind of dictate your own strategy in terms of what you’re doing by being able to set the pace.

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“Is it critical here” to be on pole? “No,” Rossi said. “But it certainly makes your day quite a bit easier.”

The field will have one more practice session at 9 a.m. PDT Saturday morning before qualifying starts at noon.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes


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