NEWTON, Iowa — IndyCar points leader Josef Newgarden has spent much of the season holding off a hard-charging Alexander Rossi.
Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud looks poised to make the chase for the championship a three-car affair.
Pagenaud moved 22 points closer to Newgarden, his Team Penske teammate, after leading 80 of 85 laps in a dominant win in Toronto last weekend. Pagenaud now trails Newgarden by just 39 points and Rossi by 35 heading into Saturday night’s race at Iowa Speedway.
Pagenaud put further pressure on Newgarden and Rossi by winning the pole Friday for the second week in a row.
The 35-year-old Frenchman beat Will Power, also of Team Penske, and Newgarden to capture his third pole of 2019 and his 13th overall.
"I’m definitely happy to be ahead of my teammates," Pagenaud said. "Josef is my competition this year, so I’ve got to grab any points I can get. Be aggressive, show authority."
Pagenaud hit a bit of a wall following his memorable win at the Indianapolis 500 in late May. He went four straight races finishing no better than sixth, a run that threatened to nullify the points advantage he picked up in Indianapolis.
But the No. 22 team found something in last weekend’s performance in Canada, and Pagenaud could be tough to beat if he can bring the speed he had in qualifying to Saturday’s race.
Iowa will be just the third oval of the season, with Pagenaud (Indianapolis) and Newgarden (Texas) taking the first two races. No one has ever won an IndyCar race from the pole in 12 tries at Iowa’s 0.875-mile short track, but Pagenaud is on a roll heading into the race.
"I’ve been saying that I want to live in the moment this year," Pagenaud said. "Do it step by step and just be in the moment as much as I can, and it’s working. So just now, I’m at the level I’ve always wanted to be in."
Newgarden wasn’t happy on Friday despite qualifying third in a performance that he flatly said "wasn’t good enough."
Newgarden has had plenty of success at Iowa though — including one of the most dominant runs in recent memory. He led 282 out of 300 laps, a record that still stands, to win in Newton three years ago for Ed Carpenter Racing. Newgarden was the third-fastest in qualifying despite having issues coming through the opening turn.
Turn "1 was probably the tough one for us. We didn’t have the balance that we needed through there," Newgarden said. "But the car was good. I think the Hitachi car has been fast. Chevy has done a tremendous job. We should have what we need, I think, for tomorrow."
Rossi will start sixth in his No. 27 Honda, which was four MPH slower than Pagenaud’s pace. But Rossi has been nearly as hot as Pagenaud of late, winning at Road America on June 23 before finishing third a week ago.
"The Penske cars have looked really strong, which is unfortunate," Rossi said.
TEAM PENSKE’S POLE DOMINANCE
Pagenaud’s qualifying win was the fifth straight for Team Penske at Iowa and the eight in 13 tries. But the powerhouse squad has only won the race once in Newton, when Helio Castroneves notched his final IndyCar victory in 2017.
"There’s very strong competition within the team. But as you can see, Team Penske is phenomenal. They give us the fastest cars," Pagenaud said.
Rossi put himself into position to compete for a win on Saturday. But the rest of the Andretti Autosport team struggled, as Ryan Hunter-Reay was ninth, Marco Andretti was 18th and Zach Veach was 20th out of 22 cars. Hunter-Reay has more wins than any other driver at Iowa though, winning in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
"I couldn’t really shift the balance one way or the other with the tools. I was too loose mid-corner, and then big understeer really late," Hunter-Reay said. "It’s unfortunate, but if you have a good race car here you can make it all up."
Like much of the country, Iowa is expected to get slammed by extreme heat on Saturday. The forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-90s when the green flag drops, with a "real feel" temperature roughly 10 degrees higher.
"It tends to amplify understeer, especially in qualifying when it’s hotter. It amplifies tire wear, too. That’s the biggest thing," Newgarden said.
HE SAID IT
"I’m not big into stats." — Josef Newgarden when asked why a pole sitter has never won an IndyCar race at Iowa.