It’s not often a driver is paid a cash bonus in Victory Lane, but this was no ordinary win for Josef Newgarden and Team Penske on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Newgarden rocketed his No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet past the No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet of teammate Scott McLaughlin on the outside of Turn 4 on the final lap and won a drag race to the checkered flag, hanging on for victory by .0669 of a second in the first oval race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.
The win was Team Penske’s 600th across all racing disciplines, and team owner Roger Penske was ecstatic to lay six crisp $100 bills on Newgarden’s palm in Victory Lane as a special bonus. Newgarden led just three of the 248 laps, while a dominant McLaughlin led 186 trips around the high-banked, 1.5-mile oval.
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“Unbelievable,” Newgarden said. “I think Scott led 95 percent of the laps. I hate doing that to a teammate, but I was going for it, just like he was.
“Man, I was loose; I was driving the thing sideways off (Turns) 3 and 4. I was trying to get a win. I’m just so pleased for everybody. Last lap, last corner – that’s what it’s all about at Texas.”
Marcus Ericsson finished third in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, 1.3537 seconds behind Newgarden. It was Ericsson’s career-best finish on an oval.
Will Power finished fourth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, as Penske drivers earned three of the top four spots in the race. Team Penske also has won both races this season, as series points leader McLaughlin triumphed Feb. 27 in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.
Six-time series champion and five-time Texas winner Scott Dixon finished fifth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson achieved a career-best finish with ease by placing sixth in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval race after starting 18th in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Johnson’s previous best finish was 17th last year as a rookie, when he only raced on road and street courses.
“I hoped to qualify in the top 10 and race in the top 10,” Johnson said. “Missed the qualifying mark a bit, but once we hit the halfway point of the race, I really could sense and feel the car. It became second nature, and off I went. We knew going oval racing would help, and today got us into the competitive mix.”
McLaughlin, who started second next to pole sitter Felix Rosenqvist, grabbed the lead on Lap 206 when rookie Callum Ilott pitted from the lead after trying to stretch fuel well beyond the normal pit cycles in his No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet. McLaughlin put himself into position to inherit the lead a lap earlier by passing Rinus VeeKay’s No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet for second in Turn 1.
Newgarden, who started seventh, drove to second and pulled to within .462 of a second of McLaughlin with 25 laps to go. McLaughlin expanded that lead to .914 of a second with five laps remaining as both drivers diced through lapped traffic.
New Zealand native McLaughlin tried to manage the gap between his car and the slower cars ahead of Ilott and fellow rookie David Malukas as the final laps ticked down, and Newgarden pounced. The gap between the top two was .315 of a second at the white flag.
As McLaughlin slowed slightly with Malukas’ car ahead, Newgarden moved up half a lane in Turns 3 and 4 and pulled outside of and even with McLaughlin exiting Turn 4. The slingshot-like whip around the final corner gave Newgarden the momentum he needed to win the drag race to the finish line.
“I was livid in the car because we had all this traffic and it wasn’t helping me, and then right when I needed it to help me, it helped me,” Newgarden said. “Literally last corner, last lap, the traffic helped me out.”
Said McLaughlin: “Second is a great day, but unfortunately, we made a little lapse and at the end of the day lost. If you’re going to lose to anyone, your teammate is the guy you want to lose it to. Gutted I couldn’t get it done for XPEL and Chevy. But at the end of the day, we’re there, and I learned a lot in the race that going to help us going in May to the Speedway.
“But I’m gutted. It still hurt. It’s how it is. But I’m pretty proud of how we’re running. My car wasn’t probably as good as it had been in traffic as it had been the whole race. I knew I was building push, I was building tightness. Once he (Newgarden) got on the outside there, I couldn’t come up above the line. I was stuck. I thought about going outside on Malukas there, but I was worried I would push up into the gray and into the fence. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Newgarden averaged 165.467 mph in a race slowed by four cautions for 52 laps.
Two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden also gained a leg up on the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge with his victory. The challenge offered by the industrial staffing giant is a bonus of $1 million to be awarded to the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver who can win on all three unique styles of tracks – street circuits, road courses and ovals – this season. The reward, if earned, will be divided, with $500,000 shared by the driver and his team and $500,000 presented to their chosen charity.
PeopleReady is offering an additional $10,000 to the winner of every race this season, also to be split with their selected charity. Newgarden is splitting his award from today’s race with SeriousFun Childrens Network and Wags & Walks Nashville.