Could Newgarden Author an Epic Comeback? It’s Not Over Yet

Could Josef Newgarden author one of the most epic comebacks in Indycar history to win a 17th championship for team owner Roger Penske?

It is still within the realm of possibility.

Hoping to win his third championship for racing’s most successful team, Newgarden must max out the points this weekend. Win one point for the pole. One point for leading a lap. Two points for leading the most laps. Fifty points for the win.

Newgarden accomplished Step 1 by qualifying first on Saturday, ahead of a Fast Six that included Scott Dixon on the front row, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud on the second, and Felix Rosenqvist, and Romain Grosjean on the third.

Newgarden remains a darkhorse to win the title. He can’t do it all by himself. Even if he can successfully navigate Steps 2, 3, and 4, he still might fall short of the title.

But for 24 hours, Newgarden is literally in the driver’s seat in the 46th running of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. Starting first will keep him clear of some dangerous situations on the first lap as he tries to complete a 48-point comeback.

“It puts you in the best position to kind of control the start, stay out of any mishaps,” Newgarden said.

“But Indycar these days is unpredictable. … Looking at the statistics, probably starting up front is good.”

And starting in the middle of the field of 28 drivers would be bad. And where do you think the two guys who are ahead of Newgarden in the standings are starting? They’re close to no-man’s land.

Team Ganassi driver Alex Palou, who holds a 35-point lead over Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O’Ward, will start 10th, on the outside of Row 5, directly behind Palou on the outside of Row 4.
O’Ward must finish first or second to win the championship – and Palou would need to finish well back in the pack. As long as Palou doesn’t finish 24th or lower, he will win the championship under any circumstances.

But trouble looms at Long Beach. Palou has to avoid a field of drivers who will have their own self-interests on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile layout. Third-year driver O’Ward must pass second-year driver Palou at some point, and the start of the race is often a good time for overtaking. And mistakes. And game-ending accidents.

It’s the kind of scenario that could take out one or both young drivers, clearing the way for Newgarden to stage an epic comeback for Penske.

If Newgarden runs the table and Palou finishes 24th or worse among the 28 drivers – and doesn’t get a bonus point for leading a lap – Newgarden will win the championship. Yeah, he’s a long shot. Yeah, Palou has been too good all season to think that he’ll finish behind 23 other drivers. But yeah, a lot of guys have lost this race in the first turn of the first lap through the years, oftentimes through no fault of their own. That’s why everyone will be watching Palou and O’Ward when the green flag drops at 12:45 p.m.

If Palou is driving on eggshells around O’Ward, there’s plenty of other drivers behind him who will also be looking to move up through the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay, making his last start for team owner Michael Andretti – and maybe his last race in the series – starts 11th, on the inside of Row 6 next to another driver with nothing to lose, Will Power.

Colton Herta, who dominated last week’s race at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca and had the fastest car in the first two practices along Shoreline Drive, is on the outside of Row 7. Alexander Rossi, who won the last two races at Long Beach but is winless this season, shares Row 8 with another driver with nothing to lose, Takuma Sato, who is making his last start for Rahal Lanigan Letterman Racing.

So Newgarden is a longshot, but he definitely has a shot. Pole winners have won the race 10 times, including Rossi in 2018 and ’19 (the last time the race was run).

You can bet that there will be carnage. Only once since 1989 has the race not had a yellow flag, but drivers have spent the weekend brushing up against the walls with some regularity. As a street race, there’s little room for error. As the most important street race in America, it also ends the Indycar season for the first time.

“If you’re going to have a street course end the season, this is the one,” said Palou’s teammate and defending series and seven-time champion, Scott Dixon, who starts second.

Long Beach is usually held in April at the beginning of the season. But closing the year in the nation’s second largest metropolitan area at an iconic event has some appeal among drivers. And it adds to the unknowns – anything can happen.

“Being in L.A., it’s a great market to end the year,” Newgarden said. “If you’re looking at it from a pure excitement standpoint, to Scott’s point, it’s interesting. It adds an element of chaos sometimes, which can be very exhilarating.”

Chaos. That’s what Newgarden needs behind him. And if he does what he has to do – win his third race of the season and lead the most laps – chaos in mid-pack might give him the most exhilarating feeling of all.


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