The Verizon IndyCar Series championship fight changed dramatically 218 laps into Saturday night's Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline at Gateway Motorsports Park. And “dramatically” is the best way to describe it.
It happened when No. 2 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet driver Josef Newgarden put his elbows up on teammate Simon Pagenaud at Turn 1, and banged wheels as he barged through on the inside to take the lead. Only extreme skill kept the reigning champion's No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet from ending the night stuffed in a SAFER Barrier.
Newgarden went on to win the race, while the fallout saw Pagenaud drop back to third behind Scott Dixon (No. 9 NTT Data Honda) and stay there to the finish.
The disappointed look on Pagenaud's face and his closed body language after the race spoke volumes, and he later insisted that the teammate trust for Newgarden was now a thing of the past.
“He doesn't have respect for me,” Pagenaud said. “I think if it wasn't me, he would be in the fence with somebody else. That's what I've got to say.”
With two races to go in the Verizon IndyCar Series, how the personal animosity between Newgarden and Pagenaud will influence the title fight now becomes the biggest question as the series heads to upstate New York for Sunday's INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen.
The win helped Newgarden extend his lead over Dixon by 13 points to widen the gap to 31 with two races remaining. Helio Castroneves is in third, 42 points behind Newgarden, with 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Pagenaud a point behind Castroneves. With a double-points finale looming in Sonoma on Sept. 17, there are still 150 points up for grabs in the last two race weekends, not including bonuses for winning the pole and leading laps.
While Pagenaud seethed, Newgarden simply insisted that there was room going into the corner and he took advantage of it.
“I did see a replay and we did touch — I moved over on him one time, but that was right as the corner was closing,” Newgarden said.
“I kind of was hoping he would open the door a little more when I was alongside of him. He didn't open it any further. I feel like if I didn't move him just a touch, if I jump the curb, we both would have been in the wall. If anything, that was a good thing.”
The biggest beneficiary of any animosity between the Penske pair might be Dixon, the four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion who will be lurking in the weeds looking to capitalize if his title rivals trip each other in the last two races.
You want drama? You got it.
Gateway delivers on crowd and excitement
The Verizon IndyCar Series’ return to Gateway Motorsports Park can only be called a success after fans showed up in droves to watch the drivers battle late into Saturday night in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles made the trip and sat in the grandstands, tweeting a few pictures of the estimated crowd of 40,000 from his seat.
“What an awesome crowd!” he posted.
In my Sec 25 grandstand seat @GatewayMSP for the #Bommarito500 @Indycar race! What an awesome crowd! pic.twitter.com/Oz5fUL5jlC
The Verizon IndyCar Series was back at Gateway after a 14-year absence, with the last race at the 1.25-mile short oval going in 2003, won by Castroneves.
Many drivers remarked on the atmosphere after the race, including winner Newgarden.
“I felt like everyone was a little extra nervous tonight because of the energy in this place,” he said.
“A lot of that is down to St. Louis, all the promoters here, Gateway, everything the sponsors at the track have done to try to get people out here and come back to this race. It's fun to see it back here.”