Team Penske's Josef Newgarden wins pole for final Detroit Grand Prix run on Belle Isle

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Josef Newgarden of Team Penske was going for it during the Firestone Fast 6 Saturday afternoon, saying his last lap of qualifying for the final Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar race on Belle Isle was either going to result in a pole — or an accident.

Newgarden was hanging on for a lap of 1:15.215 on the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course to earn that pole, besting the lap of Takuma Sato (1:15.349) of Dale Coyne Racing.

Josef Newgarden drives during qualifying for the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix on Saturday on Belle Isle in Detroit.

“That was one of the most satisfying pole laps that I’ve ever had because of the difficulty of it,” Newgarden said of his 16th career pole and third on Belle Isle. “It was on the edge. It was not easy at all I was going to go as hard as possible and I’m either wrecking or I’m putting it on pole.

“Fortunately, the car was very, very good. It was a little too loose and there were a couple of corners I thought I was actually going to hit the fence, but we hung on. I thought 4, 5 and 6, those three corners I was going to hit the wall and we just stayed off.

“We saved the best tire for last, and we just had enough. Our car was very, very good. I thought that the team did an incredible job. It was just a little bit too loose. I think everybody is dealing with that this weekend. I find that you’re pretty on the edge this weekend. The track grip is lower than I would anticipate, so you just have to hold on. We’re all doing it.”

Newgarden has more wins (19) than any other driver in the series since his arrival with Team Penske in 2017, topping the 11 victories owned by his teammate Will Power and the 11 wins by Scott Dixon of Ganassi Racing.

Newgarden has won series titles in 2017 and 2019, also finishing as series runner-up the last two years, to Dixon in 2020 and to Dixon’s Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou last season.

Newgarden has enjoyed success on Belle Isle, winning Race No. 1 in 2019 and finishing second in 2017 and second again last year in Race 2.

In fact, Newgarden won the pole for Race 2 last season on the island and was leading until the final restart when he couldn’t hold off Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren.

“It was a cliff at times on red tires and so I think you saw everybody trying to get off of them as quickly as possible,” Newgarden said of using the alternate red-wall tires in last year’s Race 2. “We obviously took the opposite route and tried to take our medicine last, and it almost worked. I want to point that out, it almost worked. It didn’t but it almost did, so I was obviously disappointed that we weren’t able to close the deal, but it was a heck of a challenge to try and hold on to that thing at the end of the race. We were going 24, 25 laps on a set of red tires and they were used reds. In hindsight, maybe we would have done that differently.

“I think you will see a similar race this weekend. It’s hard to say. No one has run the reds for a long stint yet, but it certainly seems like the characteristics last year are pretty similar this year.”

Newgarden says his car is good enough to win Sunday. 

“I think we have a fast car, quick enough to win,” Newgarden said. “It’s just a matter of getting strategy right and not having any missteps. This field, it’s too difficult to keep everybody behind you now even if you have a fast car. You just can’t make any mistakes and I feel confident we can do the job.”

So, does Newgarden enjoy racing on Belle Isle?

“I do like this track,” Newgarden said. “I’m going to miss it. I think it was a fantastic track to drive. It’s very, very challenging. It’s predominantly concrete, and with that it takes a lot of rubber to build grip and before that point happens it’s very, very slippery and it’s hard to keep it off the fence here, you’ve seen a lot of wrecks this weekend because of that, so that challenge is something that I think all of us enjoy. You’re able as a driver to get more out of it maybe than your competitor. It gives you an area to separate yourself so I’m going to miss that aspect.”

Marcus Ericsson, who won the Indy 500, will start eighth Sunday. Ericsson owns the points lead by a 13-point margin over O’Ward with Palou 14 behind. Power sits fourth, 24 behind Ericsson with Newgarden, fifth.

Sato was happy with his performance, but equally proud of his rookie teammate David Malukas, who will start sixth.

“We were just this much short, but I’m really proud of Dale Coyne Racing,” Sato said. “Obviously, every single week is new for him (Malukas), but for me to try to teach him how the process DCR does and the new engineers and the boys. Like David said, we always knew the potential and it’s all come together.”

Malukas entered the weekend with a chip on his shoulder, finishing as the highest rookie in the Indy 500 (16th place), but still finishing second in Rookie of the Year honors for the race to Jimmie Johnson despite Johnson’s 28th place finish.

O’Ward, who will start fifth, is looking forward to the race.

“I love this place,” O’Ward said. “It’s a long race. It’s a physical race. A lot can happen because there’s usually a lot of people making mistakes, so I think the first priority is don’t make a mistake and second priority is just try to make your way forward as you can and get a good solid points day.”

O’Ward passed several drivers during the last few laps to win last season on the island.

Power failed to even advance to the second round of qualifying — the top 12 — having a fast lap of 1:15.573 in Group 2 of the first segment to put him on the outside of Row 8,

The Meyer/Shank Racing team of Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves — former Team Penske teammates — showed it had the speed to run up front.

Pagenaud (1:15.395) and Castroneves (1:15.453) will start on Row 2.

Pagenaud, who won the IndyCar series championship in 2016 for Roger Penske and the Indy 500 in ’19 — has enjoyed success on the island, winning Race No. 2 in the first year of the doubleheader back in 2013 for Schmidt/Peterson/Hamilton Motorsports, then having a podium finish (third) in Race No. 1 in ’15 and another podium (second) in Race No. 2 in ’16.

Castroneves, a four-time Indy 500 winner, became a legend on the island, winning his first IndyCar race on Belle Isle in 2000 for Team Penske, then climbing the fence in celebration, enjoying the experience so much that he repeated as race champion the following season. He also won the race No. 2 in 2014, making him the first three-time champion of the event which started in 1992. Dixon matched him as a three-time race champ in 2019.

Rookie Kyle Kirkwood had the perfect day Friday, topping the IndyCar field in the opening practice while also winning the pole for the IMSA WeatherTech sportscar championship GTD division.

It was back to reality for Kirkwood in the second practice when he experienced mechanical problems, resulting in his No. 14 Chevrolet colliding with Malukas and going into the tire barrier, forcing him to the sidelines without a lap being run.

“It was mechanical, it’s kind of why it put us in the wall and unfortunately it’s not something that we could fix on pit lane,” Kirkwood said. “It wasn’t Malukas’ fault at all. I was actually trying to let him by and unfortunately, I drove into him, so that’s on us for sure.

“I wanted to get back out, was getting ready to get back into the car and we found something, so we’re going to have to go behind the wall and figure it out. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t do the second practice session, but we know there’s pace in the car, so we’ll come into qualifying swinging.”

Kirkland failed to get out of the first round of qualifying and will start 15th.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com