By INDYCAR Wire Service
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Monday, April 23, 2018) – Josef Newgarden raced on cruise control in today’s completion of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First. Even a return of rain late in the race didn’t prevent the Team Penske driver from collecting his third Verizon IndyCar Series win at Barber Motorsports Park in the past four years.
Newgarden drove the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet to a 9.9607-second victory at the hilly 2.3-mile, 17-turn permanent road course, despite increasingly treacherous track conditions as rain that caused the race to be suspended after 22 laps on Sunday reappeared for the final 15 laps today.
“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden admitted. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows, it was dry, then that rain made it very nerve-racking.”
The victory was the ninth of Newgarden’s six-year Verizon IndyCar Series career. All the wins have come since 2015, including his maiden triumph at Barber that same year. It was also the sixth Team Penske win in nine Barber races and the 199th overall Indy car win for the historic team.
The race picked up today from where it was halted by heavy rain and flooded track conditions on Sunday. Newgarden, who started from the pole position and was still in first place for the restart, quickly pulled away from the field in cloudy but dry conditions. The Tennessee native built a commanding 25-second lead over Sebastien Bourdais when rain began falling around the circuit on Lap 66.
Newgarden was the first driver opting to pit for Firestone rain tires on Lap 71, surrendering the lead to Bourdais.
“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” the reigning series champion said. “We went to rain (tires) as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.
“Fortunately, the weather cooperated with what we needed, and I think that’s ultimately what got it done.”
Hoping to make it to the end on the slick dry-condition tires, Bourdais stayed out as long as possible in the No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda. But the precipitation increased and the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan driver was forced to stop for rain tires on Lap 76. Bourdais finished fifth.
“Josef went for the push and it looked like we were still going to beat him because he pitted (for rain tires) and we got ahead,” Bourdais said. “I had enough fuel to finish, but unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to open the skies and there wasn’t anything we could do about that. We tried to stay out and it bit us.
“Unfortunately, you can’t predict what the weather is going to do, so you have to make a call one way or the other and we were on the wrong side of the fence today.”
Once Bourdais pitted, Newgarden reclaimed the lead and drove comfortably to the checkered flag on Lap 82. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second in the No. 28 DHL Honda.
“With the rain coming, I could see the clouds coming, the moisture starting to accumulate on the visor, (the car) sliding around a little bit,” Hunter-Reay said following his 39th career podium finish and first of 2018. “The key there was trying to pit (for rain tires) at the right time, not too early to where you burn the fronts off and not too late to where you’d be sliding around too much on slicks.
“We were coming there at the end. I think we had really good rain pace, catching Newgarden by a bunch every lap, but just a little too late. All in all, a good weekend. Drama-free for us, so nice.”
James Hinchcliffe finished third – the Canadian’s best Barber finish in eight starts – in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda.
With the win, Newgarden recaptured the championship lead after four of 17 races. He has 158 points, 13 more than Alexander Rossi, who gambled longest on slick tires and finished 11th today in the No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda for Andretti Autosport. Bourdais is third with 119 points, the same number as Graham Rahal, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver who finished seventh today. Bourdais holds the tiebreaker based on his win in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.
The initial four laps of today’s restart were run under full-course caution behind the pace car, but once the green flag waved on Lap 27, the remainder ran without a yellow flag. The race ended eight laps shy of its originally scheduled 90 laps due to the two-hour time limit split over the two days.
The Verizon IndyCar Series now turns its attention to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the monumental month of May. Most drivers and teams will participate in testing on the iconic 2.5-mile oval from April 30-May 2 in preparation for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 27 (11 a.m. ET, ABC). Prior to that comes the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, set for Saturday, May 12 (3:30 p.m., ABC).