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Josef Newgarden wins Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Scott Dixon wins IndyCar championship

Josef Newgarden defended his Grand Prix win, but Scott Dixon drove off with his sixth career IndyCar Series title.
Josef Newgarden, left, and Scott Dixon spray each other with champagne following the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday.
Josef Newgarden, left, and Scott Dixon spray each other with champagne following the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 25, 2020
Updated Oct. 25, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Josef Newgarden did enough Sunday to defend one of his titles. Just not the one that mattered the most.

Newgarden used a gutsy restart sequence to win the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg but couldn’t make up enough points to catch Scott Dixon, who clinched a sixth IndyCar championship by finishing third in the series' season finale.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Newgarden said.

The sweet part was obvious. Needing a victory and some help to have a shot at a third career IndyCar title (and second in a row), Newgarden did all that he could do.

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden kisses wife Ashley after winning Sunday.
Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden kisses wife Ashley after winning Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

His No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet was up front for most of the day as other contenders on powerhouse teams dropped out. First it was teammate Will Power, who started from the pole here for the ninth time.But his No. 12 Chevrolet had mechanical problems downshifting, then hit an outside wall on Lap 37 to finish last in the 24-car field.

“Just lost it,” said Power, a two-time Grand Prix winner.

So did the driver who took the lead from Power, Alexander Rossi. The 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion led 61 of the first 69 laps before getting loose in the marbles and crashing in a rough day for Andretti Autosport.

Newgarden, however, avoided the six cautions that covered 26 of the 100 laps.

“We outlasted everybody,” Newgarden said.

Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Josef Newgarden races down the track in the #1 IndyCar on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Josef Newgarden races down the track in the #1 IndyCar on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The 29-year-old Tennessee native made his triumphant charge on a restart on Lap 80. He started the run in third and bolted inside Belleair’s Colton Herta in Turn 1. Then he steered outside Alex Palou on the next corner to take the lead for good.

By cruising to a 4.1-second win over runnerup Pato O’Ward, Newgarden became the third driver in a row to repeat as Grand Prix winner (Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2015-16, and St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais won in 2017-18). His second triumph here came in unusual circumstances; instead of serving as IndyCar’s opener in March, the early days of the coronavirus pandemic forced the race to move to the end of the season.

Related: How the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg marked the end of the pre-pandemic era
Ronnie Jerger, 12, of Madeira Beach, fist bumps IndyCar Dale Coyne Racing driver Santino Ferrucci on Sunday.
Ronnie Jerger, 12, of Madeira Beach, fist bumps IndyCar Dale Coyne Racing driver Santino Ferrucci on Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

As Newgarden cruised to his 18th career victory, he rarely got any information from his team about Dixon’s position. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway.

“We just did what we could,” Newgarden said, “and hoped for the best.”

That’s where the bitter part comes in for one of IndyCar’s biggest American stars. He simply entered the weekend too far behind Dixon.

Scott Dixon and team owner Chip Ganassi share a moment after winning the IndyCar Championship on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Scott Dixon and team owner Chip Ganassi share a moment after winning the IndyCar Championship on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Dixon won four of the first eight races to build up a massive points lead on Newgarden and the rest of the field. The 40-year-old New Zealand native needed only to finish ninth or better to finish as a wire-to-wire champion.

That didn’t seem like much of a problem for Dixon. Like Newgarden, Dixon stayed near the front for much of the day and — as he always seems to do — avoided any major issues. His No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda stayed on a similar pit strategy as Newgarden to reduce his odds of getting caught in an unlucky caution.

Even with a big points lead, Dixon refused to race conservatively. When Newgarden darted to the lead on the restart, Dixon made a few moves behind him to keep his adversary from pulling too far ahead.

The result was Dixon’s sixth podium in 16 career races here — a strong performance at one of the few tracks where he has never won.

IndyCar Championship winner Scott Dixon races through the track in the #9 car during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
IndyCar Championship winner Scott Dixon races through the track in the #9 car during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“It feels really cool to finally celebrate something here,” Dixon said, “I have a lot of memories here. Some of them are not so great.”

This one, however, was special. A championship that capped off a wild, dominant season and put him one behind the legendary A.J. Foyt for the most ever.

“Six is good,” Dixon said after slipping on a black mask that read INDYCAR CHAMPIONS. “Seven sounds better.”

That quest starts on these downtown streets in 133 days when the Grand Prix returns to its usual March spot as IndyCar’s opener.