INDIANAPOLIS — Josef Newgarden finally captured his long-awaited Indianapolis 500 on Sunday and gave team owner Roger Penske his 19th victory and first since buying Indianapolis Motor Speedway, making an audacious pass of defending race winner Marcus Ericsson during a frantic 2.5-mile sprint to the finish.
After the race was red-flagged for the third time in the closing laps, Newgarden was moved from fourth to second by race control. The two-time IndyCar champion, who had been 0 for 11 in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” took advantage of it by slingshotting around Ericsson on the restart and holding him off through the last two turns for the win.
Newgarden brought his Chevrolet-powered car to a stop on the front stretch, jumped out and found a hole in the fence, diving into part of a crowd estimated at more than 300,000 to celebrate. Then, Newgarden climbed the fence to mimic longtime Team Penske driver and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
“I’m just so thankful to be here. I started out as a fan in the crowd, and this place is amazing, regardless of where you’re sitting,” Newgarden said after pouring a bottle of whole milk over his head. “Everyone kept asking why I hadn’t won this race, and they look at you like you’re a failure if you haven’t won it. I knew I was capable. I knew I could.”
Ericsson finished second in a Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and he immediately criticized the decision by IndyCar to have the green flag fly on the first lap out of the pits and set up a one-lap run to the checkers.
“I think it was an unfair and dangerous way to end the race,” Ericsson said. “I think I did everything right behind the wheel.”
Newgarden and Ericsson were followed by Santino Ferrucci, who gave 88-year-old A.J. Foyt his team’s best finish in the iconic race that Super Tex won four times since Kenny Bräck reached victory lane in 1999.
Alex Palou, the pole sitter and race favorite for Chip Ganassi Racing, finished fourth and Alexander Rossi was fifth on what was an otherwise disappointing day for Arrow McLaren.
What was on pace to be the fastest Indy 500 in history ended with three red flags in the final 16 laps.
The first came for a crash involving Felix Rosenqvist and Kyle Kirkwood, who were near the front of the lead pack. Rosenqvist touched the fence in Turn 1 and could not prevent his Arrow McLaren car from sliding down the track. Kirkwood launched off his right rear tire and went upside down into the catch fence, beginning a terrifying, spark-filled ride through the short chute.
One of Kirkwood’s wheels sailed over the fencing and narrowly cleared the packed grandstand. Nobody was injured.
“All I know is I was up in the fence, which is never a good thing in IndyCar. Thank God these cars are so safe,” Kirkwood said. “I saw sparks flying everywhere. That’s the scary part. You’re upside-down and you’re kind of stuck at that point.”
On the restart, Pato O’Ward — who already had a restart called off for setting too slow of a pace — was shuffled from first to third as Newgarden shot to the lead. O’Ward and Ericsson were then side by side entering Turn 3 and touched wheels, and O’Ward slid into the wall and out of the race in another bitter disappointment for Arrow McLaren.
Agustin Canapino did a 360-spin behind him, breaking a break line. He was unable to stop and collided with O’Ward’s car.
“I was a little too nice there,” O’Ward said. “I just feel so bummed for the team. We had four very fast race cars, now there’s only two in the race. … I got onto the apron to give (Ericsson) room. I got squeezed. Yeah, I won’t forget that.”
What had been one of the fastest Indy 500s in history suddenly had its second red flag with six laps to go.
Last year’s race was red-flagged with five to go, when Ericsson was leading O’Ward to the finish. Ericsson held him off the rest of the way, and many criticized O’Ward for not making a more aggressive move for the win.
Newgarden didn’t make the same mistake with Ericsson out in front of him.
As he crossed the yard of bricks, Penske and his entire executive committee jumped up and down in celebration on an elevated platform near the start-finish line. And for a moment, the 86-year-old team owner looked like a child filled with joy.
“Just pure emotion,” Newgarden said. “I was trying to stay locked in. I was emotional the whole last 10 laps because I knew we were in position to fight for the win. I can’t talk highly enough about the team. They worked so hard all month.”