BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Josef Newgarden banked on the rain at Barber Motorsports Park, and it was a pretty safe bet.
The defending series champion started on the pole for the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and led almost the entire way, winning the rain-delayed race on Monday for the third time in four years. IndyCar had pushed back completion of the race because of heavy rain Sunday.
With a sizable lead and showers starting anew, Newgarden made his second pit stop with about 15 minutes left in the timed race to switch to rain tires. Contenders like Sebastien Bourdais and runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay remained on the track while the rain soaked the course.
“We could have stayed out like them, too, but for us it made no sense,” said Newgarden, who took over the points lead. “We had everything to lose, they had everything to gain. So I don’t blame them with what they did. It would have been their race to win if it stopped raining at that point because they would have been able to make it work.”
That’s why Team Penske president Tim Cindric told Newgarden on the radio they were racing the weather at that point, not other drivers.
“The rain was either going to come more and work out for us or it wasn’t,” Newgarden said. “Fortunately, it just kept coming down. The more it came down, it just played into our hands.”
He won for the second time in the first four races of the season.
Bourdais stayed on the track, trying to keep a grip on both the lead and the 2.38-mile (3.83 kilometer) course. He finally relented for a pit stop and Newgarden built a 25-second cushion that wasn’t challenged.
He finished 10 seconds ahead of Hunter-Reay, followed by James Hinchcliffe , rookie Robert Wickens and Bourdais. Alexander Rossi entered with the points lead after winning at Long Beach but finished 11th.
Hunter-Reay said it boiled down to balancing the pit strategy just right.
“Newgarden was right on the cusp,” he said. “Had it gone another three or four laps, he might have been in trouble with the time that he pitted, because it was still a little bit dry when he took his rains.
“We were coming there at the end. We had a really good rain pace, catching Newgarden by a bunch every lap, but just a little bit too late.”
Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, got his first podium at Barber.
“I feel like we kind of almost flirt with it every year,” he said.
The final result was familiar: a Newgarden victory on the picturesque road course a few hours from his Tennessee hometown, often labeled his “home track.”
Well, home sweet home.
It was the sixth win in nine years in Alabama for Team Penske. Newgarden got his ninth career victory after leading 72 of 83 laps.
“It was more hectic than you would want at the end,” he said. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows, it was dry and then that rain just made it very nerve-wracking. We did the only thing we could. We went to rain tires as soon as it intensified.”
Bourdais, coming off two 13th-place finishing following an opening win at St. Petersburg, had a big weekend. He has led laps in each of the season’s first four races.
Two-time Barber winner Will Power came in on a high note with a second-place Long Beach finish after two subpar performances by his standards. The Australian spun out on the first turn of lap 17 Sunday and slammed into the inside wall. That incident, however, can be chalked up to a water-logged track at a place where he typically has been successful.
May is all about Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the series heading to the IndyCar Grand Prix on May 12 before the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.
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