LONG BEACH, Calif. (Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021) – One down, two to go: The miracle is still alive for Josef Newgarden.
Newgarden, who needs a perfect weekend in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach to have any chance of winning his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, kept his narrow chances afloat in the shadow of the Queen Mary ocean liner by winning the NTT P1 Award for the season-ending race on the Streets of Long Beach. Newgarden entered this race 48 points behind leader Alex Palou and needed to win the pole today and win the race and lead the most laps Sunday to have any chance to hoist the Astor Challenge Cup.
Team Penske driver Newgarden led the Firestone Fast Six with a top lap of 1 minute, 8.2241 in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet to earn his series-leading fourth NTT P1 Award of the season. His best lap came on his final trip around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street circuit.
The pole came after Newgarden qualified 18th on Sept. 14 at Portland and 17th last Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca despite showing impressive speed in practice.
“I was pretty much screaming that whole last lap,” Newgarden said. “I’m so happy. It’s been a little bit demoralizing the last couple of weekends with where we qualified. We’ve had really good cars. To start where we’ve started these last couple of races, it’s just taken the life out of me a little bit.
“I’m so pumped we were able to be quick here. I think we’ve got the package, for sure, with Team Chevy. We’ve accomplished our job for today. Now we have to go after tomorrow.”
Live coverage of the 85-lap race starts at 3 p.m. (ET) Sunday on NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network. A 30-minute warmup starts at noon (ET), live on Peacock Premium.
Palou must finish 12th or better – or 13th or better if he leads a lap – to clinch his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. He’ll start 10th on the grid after a dramatic end to the round of 12 in qualifying in which a handful of drivers, including Palou and closest title rival Pato O’Ward, on fast final laps were forced to slow due to a local yellow flag for an incident involving Will Power.
Newgarden’s only chance to win the title is to win and lead the most laps Sunday, with Palou finishing 25th or worse in the 28-car field.
“It’s very improbable for us to win this championship,” Newgarden said. “So, our goal is to win the race tomorrow. Let’s finish our season on a high note, and we’ll see what happens. I think it’s pretty unlikely, but you never say never in this sport.”
The other title contender, O’Ward, will start eighth in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
O’Ward is second in the standings, 35 points behind Palou. Like Newgarden, O’Ward needs to win Sunday and have Palou finish 25th or lower. He also could claim his first title by finishing second and earning at least one bonus point for leading a lap, if Palou finishes 25th or lower.
Six-time and reigning series champion Scott Dixon will join Newgarden on the front row after qualifying second at 1:08.4422 in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda.
Four-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Helio Castroneves qualified third at 1:08.4827 in the No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda, easily the best start of his partial season. Castroneves’ previous best start was eighth for the Indy 500, which he won. His best start in four previous road or street course races this season was 15th at Nashville.
Joining Castroneves on the second row will be 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud, whose best lap was 1:08,6514 in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.
Felix Rosenqvist qualified fifth at 1:08.7461 in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, while rookie Romain Grosjean rounded out the Firestone Fast Six at 1:08.7577 in the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda.
Drama gripped the paddock and grandstands from the first round of NTT P1 Award qualifying and never relented.
Colton Herta, quickest in both practice sessions this weekend, was eliminated from the first round of qualifying and will start 14th. Herta hit the concrete retaining wall with the left side of his No. 26 Gainbridge Honda late in the second group while running on Firestone primary “black” tires. He came to the pits for a set of Firestone alternate “red” tires, but the toe link suspension piece bent by the earlier contact broke on his final flying lap on “reds,” and he was forced to abandon the run.
“It was a handful until it wasn’t bent anymore and just broke,” Herta said. “It was my fault, unfortunately. It will make for an interesting race, though. We’re starting 14th and have two sets of new reds. Could be a good thing, a charge to the front tomorrow.”
Another flashpoint came at the end of the Firestone Fast 12, when Power slowed to a stop in Turn 10 after clipping the wall in his No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet, triggering a local yellow flag. O’Ward, Palou and a handful of other drivers on fast laps were forced by the rules to slow in that area, and Ed Jones lost his fast lap in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda that would have put him in the Firestone Fast Six after officials judged he didn’t slow for the local yellow.