'You make your own luck': Crucial pit stop helps catapult Newgarden to Detroit Grand Prix victory

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden staves off Alexander Rossi to win the time-limited Chevrolet Dual in Detroit - Dual 1.

Detroit —  A little storm wasn’t about to put a damper on Race 1 of the  Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader Saturday afternoon on Belle Isle.

The rain, thunderstorm, hit the island and the fans scampered for shelter following the IMSA Sportscar Championship won by former Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron in their No. 6 Acura Team Penske just after 2 p.m. 

And, that storm forced a delay of the start of the race, which was scheduled to get underway at 3:30, resulting in a 1½-hour delay and multiple changes in the race format.

Instead of the IndyCar drivers going around the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course for 70 laps, it turned into a timed race of 75 minutes with a single-file start with the use of rain tires.

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden didn’t let the conditions bother him, going on to win the race in his No. 2 Chevrolet with Indy 500 runner-up and pole-sitter Alexander Rossi finishing second in his No. 27 Honda for Andretti Autosport, less than a second behind in the 43-lap race, 29 run under green flag conditions.

So, after Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud earned the clean sweep of the month of May for car owner Roger Penske — winning the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the pole for the Indy 500 and the Indy 500 victory — Newgarden starts the month of June off with a win for Penske in his home town and for race title sponsor Chevrolet.

Oh, and Newgarden had to feel fortunate as well when he pitted at nearly the same time Ed Jones went into the tire barrier to set out a caution on Lap 18, enabling him to take the lead when he made his way back to the track while Rossi, who led the first 18 laps, had to pit soon after.

“Tim Cindric (race strategist) made the call of the race in my opinion, got us the win again,” said Newgarden of Cindric’s call to send him to the pits. “We had to execute obviously. I think we were quick, but getting that call from Tim was perfect when we got it.

“When you talk to Roger (team owner Penske), he’ll tell you that you make your own luck. It is true. We were making that call regardless. The yellow certainly helped us, but we were sitting in a good position either way. It would have been very difficult to win the race without the yellow, but the yellow just fell perfectly right into our strategy.

“I think when we pitted it was the right time to pit. You could tell the rain tires were starting to go off. The rears were overheating terribly just because it was getting dry. You could see Rossi was struggling, Dixon and me were both catching him. Dixon actually looked quite good there for that part, but I think when we pitted was the right time and then the yellow just helped us even further so great call.”

Newgarden took a celebratory jump into the Scott Fountain during post-race festivities which had to leave him chilled … but still smiling.

Rossi, Scott Dixon — last year’s Race 1 winner — Newgarden and his Team Penske teammate Will Power did the best job of maneuvering their cars in rainy conditions in the early going before switching rain tires to slicks more than 20 minutes into the race when the rain left the area. 

Newgarden ended Honda’s streak of four straight wins on Belle Isle. Now, he will try to become the first driver to earn the clean sweep on Belle Isle since Graham Rahal in 2017 when Race 2 gets underway Sunday at 3.

Newgarden, whose best previous finish on Belle Isle was second in Race 2 of his IndyCar series title season of 2017, earned a championship point for topping the field in the first qualifying session Saturday morning to push his way into the points lead with Pagenaud, then leaving the track with a 25-point lead after the win.

Power, who won Race 1 on Belle Isle in 2014, was on the attack from the start, moving from his starting position of 12th into the top five on Lap 12, but his chance at victory went quickly away when he left his pit on Lap 19.

Then, Dixon’s No. 9 Honda hit the inside wall and went wide into the tire barrier to end his day on Lap 23, giving him his first DNF since two years ago at Texas.

Rossi and Newgarden topped the charts all weekend in practice and qualifying, and Newgarden and Rossi were running 1-2 with 10 minutes left with Takuma Sato, rookie Felix Rosenqvist, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Pagenaud and Graham Rahal all still in contention for a podium spot (top-three finish).

Sato finished third, followed by Rosenqvist, Hunter-Reay, Pagenaud and Rahal.

Rossi left a track for the second time in less than a week frustrated and disappointed with a second-place finish.

“I think the car was great,” Rossi said. “As a team we did everything right. We executed. We got on the pole. We controlled the race in the wet, had a great pit stop. We were in the window to make it on one stop, the wets were just about to be at the end of their life, the track was about to be dry so everything was working like we wanted and then this car (driven by Ed Jones) went into the wall right when Josef was there (in pits). It’s just the way it falls sometime, the way it works. He still had to go out and finish it. He didn’t make any mistakes and did what he had to do.”

Rossi looked like he tossed aside that disappointment of finishing second to Pagenaud in Sunday’s Indy 500 behind him, winning the pole. He put together the fastest lap (1:14.19) during the final minute of the second qualifying session, taking the top spot away from Newgarden.

Still, in the end Rossi left watching a Team Penske hoist the ultimate trophy.

Montoya-Cameron earn win

Montoya, who won the 2015 Indy 500 for Penske and finished on the podium (third place) in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Race No. 1 in ’16, is now competing in the IMSA series and teamed up with Cameron to win their second straight race with Penske sitting in the pit box.

Montoya and Cameron dominated the race, leading 51 of the 58 laps, including the last 24 to pull within five points of Filipe Nasr and Pipo Derani, who finished second in the No. 31 Cadillac for Whelen Engineering Racing.

Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor finished third in the No. 7 Acura Team Penske.

“It’s just exciting, exciting to carry the Acura flag,” Montoya said. “I think here the pace is really even for everybody and to be able to win is good. I did everything I needed to do yesterday in qualifying (by winning the pole).”

Said Cameron: “It was really cool to win for Roger in his hometown.”

Drummond's grand time

Pistons center Andre Drummond was on hand to give the “Drivers, Start Your Engines” command, but he had to sit and wait it out like the rest of the fans due to the weather.

When asked about the NBA Finals with Toronto winning the opener against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Drummond replied: “We’re not playing so I don’t really care so whoever wins, wins, but hopefully Toronto wins because they are closer to us. Kawhi Leonard is playing out of his mind so hopefully they can sustain that and win the series.”

So, what has Drummond been doing since the end of the season?

“Working out,” he said. “I’m more focused on my body and the conditioning aspect of my workouts.”

Drummond was enjoying his time before the rain hit, but still didn’t get a chance to visit with some of the drivers.

“Just seeing the cars lined up, seeing the cars in person is crazy,” said Drummond, who finally did give the command with 72-year-old Emerson Fittipaldi, a two-time Indy 500 winner. “I’ve seen them on TV, in pictures and videos, but seeing them up close and see how thin those cars are it’s pretty crazy to see how well these guys drive those cars without crashing them very often.”