INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Josef Newgarden doesn't intend to just give up on his season title defense.
And now, he's got a chance to keep the crown another year.
The two-time IndyCar champion pulled away from the rest of the field over the final 18 laps Friday, racing to his third win of the season, this time by a margin of 14.2940 seconds over Alexander Rossi. With the Harvest GP win, Newgarden moved within 40 points of what once was a seemingly safe 120-point lead of five-time series champ Scott Dixon with two races remaining.
“It was a great day," Newgarden said. “It was what we needed. We said we had to have three perfect races to end the sesaon and we did that in the first of those three races."
For Newgarden, it was a breakthrough moment, too.
The 29-year-old Tennessean fought valiantly for three team owners — Sarah Fisher, Ed Carpenter and now Roger Penske — to reach Indy's victory lane. It finally came with career win No. 17, out of the No. 2 starting spot, while leading a race-high 34 of 85 laps.
It wasn't as easy as it looked. First, he had to hold off Colton Herta, until Herta was on worn tires, and extended the lead when Rossi got caught up in lapped traffic.
“We’ve been in the top five here quite often over the last four or five years, it’s just not lined up," Newgarden said. “I’ve had a couple of events like that and this has been one of them. I knew we’d figure it out and eventually it would come our way. Today was that day. We had a good car and we had nothing odd happen."
Dixon, a five-time series champ from New Zealand, never contended. He started 12th, got as high as fifth then slipped to ninth when worn tires sent him into the grass with two laps to go. He'll get a chance to start rebuilding his lead Saturday when drivers return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course for the second race on a doubleheader weekend. They'll finish the season Oct. 25 at St. Petersburg.
Rossi thought he cold have put some pressure on Newgarden — if he hadn't been penalized.
“The penalty cost us a lot of time, track position and then really we were behind lapped cars out there," he said. “He (Newgarden) was on blacks, we were on reds. I'm not saying we would have won it, but you look at the race, there was a lot taken away from us."
Pole winner Rinus VeeKay, a rookie, was third. Herta wound up fourth.
ARIE ON CALL
Arie Luyendyk knows what it takes to go fast at the speedway. The two-time Indy winner still holds the records for fastest practice lap (239.260 mph), fastest qualifying lap (237.986) and fastest four-lap qualifying average (237.498).
So when VeeKay claimed his first IndyCar pole Thursday, the 20-year-old Dutch driver called his mentor, the Flying Dutchman, who shared some tips about leading the 25-car field into the first turn. VeeKay was hoping to celebrate his first win. Instead, he settled for third.
“It was a good day, first podium (finish)," he said. “Very happy with that. Not 100% satisfied because I thought there was a little more possible. But still a good day."
Sebastien Bourdais ran for the first time in A.J. Foyt's No. 14 car and James Hinchcliffe is doing the same in Michael Andretti's No. 26 car. Both will run the final two races this season in those cars, and both are already getting started on next season, too.
Bourdais will return full-time to the series with Foyt in 2021 and is using these final races to get a jump on next season.
“Not being in the car for six months and all the uncertainty is a huge thing," the Frenchman said. “I'm just glad we can kick start the 2021 season because there's nothing else for us to fight for in 2020."
Hinchcliffe, the popular Canadian and 2016 Indy 500 pole-winner, still wants to get back in the series full-time after running a part-time schedule with Andretti this season. And these closing races could help him land a job in what he anticipates will be a wild offseason.
“I've been talking to them (the Andrettis)," he said. “It looks like there's going to be a of movement in the driver market so we're going to have to see what happens."
Hinchcliffe finished 14th. Bourdais was 21st.
WHO'S HOT: Herta. While most of the attention has focused on the title chase, the 20-year-old Floridian is finishing his second season with a flourish. He's had six straight top-10 finishes including a win from the pole at Mid-Ohio and has moved up to third in points.
WHO'S NOT: Dixon. After starting the season with three straight wins, he's finished 10th, 10th and ninth in the last three races, putting his sixth series title back in play.
UP NEXT: Round 2 of the Harvest GP will be held Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.