Josef Newgarden’s journey to the 11th NTT IndyCar Series race win of his career was as much a carefully considered chess match as it was an all-out display of speed around the tightest street circuit on the calendar.
Though an early engine failure meant he was unable to challenge Newgarden at the front of the field, Ryan Hunter-Reay was first to comment on the prospects of Firestone’s red-sidewalled alternate tires being a means to reaching the front on the streets of St. Petersburg.
“I don’t think anybody has run them long enough to really know if they hold on after that, but they definitely drop off as they’re engineered to do,” Hunter-Reay said after Friday’s practice outings about the lifespan of red tires. “So I don’t know. Reds always drop off, it’s just a matter of how much. We’ll see tomorrow.”
Beyond starring in qualifying the following day, red-sidewalled tires proved key in Sunday’s race. Each of the 24 cars started the 110-lap Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on reds, but only one took the green flag fitted with red tires used earlier in the weekend: Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet.
“Everyone seemed quite timid on the reds today,” Team Penske’s American pilot commented after the race. “Everyone started on reds like they were just gun shy about what was going to happen with them, whether it was they were going to go off (degrade) or they just didn’t think they were good on the reds.
“We saw that and, honestly, when we saw the sheet that everyone was starting on new reds, it made us think about our decision and, because we started on used reds, that essentially locks you in: You have to run a set of new. So we knew he had to do two stints on reds but we wanted to be different. We wanted to have the ability, once the track rubbered in, to do something different and put those on and jump people.
“That’s why at the beginning of the race I was just patient. I knew we had something up our sleeve there and that was really our strategy. What you saw us do today was our strategy going into it.”
The pre-planned approach allowed Newgarden to maintain control of the race during two of its three pit stop cycles, even when he wasn’t scored as the leader. After setting the fastest lap of the race just before the Lap 55 halfway mark, Newgarden visited pit lane for his second time on Lap 56 and paused while his crew installed the race-defining set of tires.
“Where we ripped a big (gap) was just on red tires and, when we went out on brand-new reds, we were able to open up a huge chunk and it was just really good timing and positioning and once we established that gap, it was about managing it, really,” Newgarden said of the gap back to second-place finisher Scott Dixon. “We didn’t have to blow it wide open and we didn’t need to see it shrink too quickly but we let it seesaw back and forth how it needed to.”
After Newgarden’s 23 competitors met the requirement of using new reds during the race’s first laps, only fellow Americans Spencer Pigot and Marco Andretti used another set later on. Still, Newgarden’s first-stint tires were the only already-broken-in reds used on the first race day of 2019.
Whereas Will Power used a pre-qualifying nap to help him secure the first NTT P1 Award of the season, Newgarden and Cindric found where they could have an advantage of their own and seized the opportunity. Their next chance to overcome the unrelenting competition in IndyCar will arrive March 24 at Circuit of The Americas.