ST. PETERSBURG — For everything that changes with Team Penske’s IndyCar program — the cars, the drivers, the setups and the rules — one thing remains the same.
The motorsports powerhouse is almost unstoppable at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Penske earned another Grand Prix victory Sunday when Josef Newgarden led 59 of the final 60 laps at IndyCar’s season opener. It was his team’s ninth Grand Prix win in the last 14 events.
As importantly for the internal dynamics, Newgarden’s dominance allowed him to atone for his qualifying mistake Saturday, when he failed to get the most out of his No. 2 Chevrolet. Instead of winning the pole, he started all the way down in — gasp! — second.
“If you drive for Team Penske and you've been in the series for a while, and you have a winning car or a pole car, you're not satisfied with anything but that…” said Newgarden, a 28-year-old Tennessee native. “You want to be able to get the most out of the car and yourself.” The 2017 series champion did that Sunday by pulling away from runner-up Scott Dixon and teammate Will Power to become Penske’s fifth different Grand Prix winner (Power, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Juan Pablo Montoya).
Newgarden — who had never won here before Sunday — was steady early and in position to take advantage of a rare miscalculation by Power.
Power started from the pole and was leading when two-time defending Grand Prix winner and St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais pulled off the course with mechanical problems.
Penske called Power to the pits, assuming a caution would follow. When the yellow never came, Power’s No. 12 Chevrolet found itself off-strategy.
“We had no offense,” Power said. “We couldn’t do anything on defense.”
That showed after the race’s first yellow, when Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Felix Rosenqvist darted inside Power heading into Turn 1 on the restart. Power couldn’t pass him back on the next corner, and he never led again.
While Power’s strategy failed, Penske’s other one worked wonderfully.
Newgarden saved a set of the new red tires — which are quicker but don’t last as long — and slowly went after Power and Rosenqvist (who finished fourth).
“I just kind of stalked those guys and waited for it,” Newgarden said. “Once it was there, we pounced.”
The pounce wasn’t exciting. He strategically inherited first when Rosenqvist’s No. 10 Honda pitted from the lead on lap 51.
But it worked. The only lap Newgarden failed to lead after that was during his final pit stop.
For Penske, Newgarden’s win and Power’s fifth career Grand Prix podium finish were just the latest highlights at the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. They combined to lead 77 of Sunday’s 110 laps; add in the last 13 events here, and Penske has been in front more than half the time (743 of 1,470 laps).
But the team’s success isn’t unique to this downtown circuit or this series.
Penske’s Supercars team won its first two races in Australia last week. In NASCAR, Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski won the last two events entering this weekend, and the team’s other driver (Ryan Blaney) started Sunday’s race from the pole.
Add in Newgarden’s Grand Prix triumph, and only the sports car team is winless.
“I think the sports car program’s getting dropped now,” Power joked.
Such are the expectations at Penske, where qualifying second to your teammate seems like a setback.
“If you have the team and you have the experience, then you feel like you have to put it together,” Newgarden said. “And that’s where the disappointment sometimes comes in.”
But after another strong Penske showing Sunday, Newgarden had no reason to be disappointed.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.