BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Josef Newgarden’s wait is over. To his relief, so is the race.
The 24-year-old Tennessean held off a hard-charging Graham Rahal on Sunday in the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama for his first IndyCar Series victory.
“I’m so relieved that it’s over with,” Newgarden said. “I really wanted that race to end. It was just so stressful for me. Normally I’m pretty cool, and I felt cool out there, but it was just very stressful to run those laps and try to control that thing. We’ve been there before and things have gone wrong, and today nothing went wrong.”
Things started going right on the opening lap, in fact, when he moved all the way from fifth to second behind pole-sitter Helio Castroneves.
Newgarden led 46 of the 90 laps. He got his milestone win at Barber Motorsports Park a few hours from his hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee, with most of the major drama coming behind him.
It was his first chance to celebrate a win since Indy Lights in 2011
Newgarden had posted second-place finishes in each of the past two years before finally finishing up front for CFH Racing, a merger of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing. He’d been off to a good start, including a seventh-place finish last weekend at Long Beach, before finally snaring a victory.
“I’m honestly just happy to win one,” Newgarden said. “I feel like we’ve been working forever for that.
“Everyone says you get that first one and it’s off your back and then you can just let it flow. I don’t know if it’s true yet, but it was going to happen at some point. This team is too good.”
Rahal finally slipped past Scott Dixon on the final lap after several tries, giving the American drivers a 1-2 finish.
“Eventually one of these days we’ll win one of these things,” Rahal said. “I hope everybody enjoyed the race because we were pushing there until the last second.”
Dixon had his sixth podium finish in as many years in Alabama at No. 3. He picked up the 36th win of his career at Long Beach, moving into sole possession of fifth place in the series. He still couldn’t quite break through in Alabama, saying it was about tire management not fuel.
“It was definitely a tough day,” Dixon said. “It started horribly, we kind of got pushed around there at the start and just didn’t get a clean line there. We dropped like a rock. We bled the rear tires off on the first set and I think we were the first to stop in that situation. It kind of altered the day and how we could kind of deal with tires and fuel and all that kind of stuff.”
The clean-cut Newgarden — who Dixon called “a super nice guy” and “a huge talent” — then had a reason to celebrate with a bit of bubbly, whether he wanted it or not.
“We finally got him to have a sip of champagne,” Rahal said. “He doesn’t drink.”
“I think he might have spit it out,” Dixon said.
Rahal’s strong finish Sunday, meanwhile, gave Honda a boost after Chevrolet fielded the seven fastest cars in qualifying, with Team Penske sweeping the top three.
Rahal flirted with his first victory since becoming the youngest IndyCar winner in 2008 at 19 years old and picked up considerable ground in the final laps.
He made an outside pass of Ryan Hunter Reay with 10 laps to go, went by Castroneves and then took on Dixon, the veteran from New Zealand. Rahal finished 2.2 seconds behind Newgarden.
Two-time defending champion Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner, made a big surge after starting 18th. He finished fifth, while Team Penske’s Power was fourth and Carlos Munoz took sixth.
Castroneves fell back to 15th after having to make a late pit stop for fuel, one spot ahead of Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, the series points leader.
“There was just a bit of miscommunication on our fuel number that, unfortunately, caused us to have to pit with one lap left,” Castroneves said. “You never want to see the white flag on pit road.”
The race had two cautions in the first third of the race, one for debris in turn 4 and another for contact between Stefano Coletti and James Jakes.
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