IOWA 300: Day turns into night, P.M. turns into A.M., and Newgarden gets his redemption

Photo: Josef Newgarden’s Team Penske crew gets his car ready in the paddock before Saturday’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway in Newton.

By John Bohnenkamp

NEWTON — The drivers insisted during qualifying the day before that, no, Saturday’s Iowa 300 wasn’t going to be a night race.

No, at the race’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start time, it was expected to be sunny and hot and the track was going to be slick and it just wasn’t going to be like those other times when the IndyCar Series raced under Iowa Speedway’s lights.

They didn’t know how the following day was going to be a wait-and-see-and-then-let’s-race marathon.

Josef Newgarden took his second checkered flag at the Speedway at 1:13 a.m. Sunday, a time when most drivers would have been well on their way home had the day not gone from blast-furnace hot to a storm-soaked cool, comfortable conditions for those who had no choice but to wait.

The nights are fine in races at Iowa Speedway. The IndyCars on the .875-mile oval provide a color-cloaked vertigo no matter the time of day here, yet there’s something different about them when the lights are on.

“I’m dizzy,” Newgarden said as he exited his Team Penske car in Victory Lane.

Everyone was, whether it was because of the race or the lengthy wait.

It was a fun show. But nobody expected the show they got, the one that started on a Saturday and ended on a Sunday.

The lament on Friday was that, even though the start time had a P.M. behind it, this wasn’t going to be a true night race. Three hundred laps take a little less than two hours to complete, and the sun was expected to be heading toward the setting in the west by the time this race was scheduled to be over.

Storm clouds gather over Iowa Speedway. The start of the race was delayed almost four hours.

An hour before what was supposed to be the start of the race, it was as dark as night, a line of thunderstorms encroaching on the speedway grounds to bring what the nearby Newton Municipal Airport recorded as a little more than a half-inch of rain but what seemed like an ocean of precipitation.

Well, everyone was going to get their night race.

“I’m sorry it took so long, but glad we got it in tonight,” Newgarden said. “We can’t help the weather.”

“Yeah, I’m getting old, I was getting ready to go to bed at 10:30,” said James Hinchcliffe, last year’s winner who finished third on this night. “It was tough. For all the fans that stayed out, weathered the storm literally, huge, huge thanks. I think it was well worth the wait. Hopefully everybody that did come and stayed for the race enjoyed the show. Felt pretty exciting from where we were sitting. Imagine from the outside, too.”

The decision to stick around as long as possible, even though the forecast was OK for Sunday, felt like it was pulled by TV strings. Sunday was a crowded day of live sports, so maybe there was someone somewhere who thought it was best to keep everyone in one place, to get this one done at least before sunrise.

Hinchcliffe played host to a cookout in the driver’s motorcoach lot that was attended by drivers Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi.

“It was a bit of a weird time,” Hinchcliffe said. “Watching Lion King, the original. I forgot how awesome that movie was. Stoked to see the new one.

“You’re kind of burning time. Then all of a sudden you have a 20-minute warning to get dressed and get in an Indy car. Can be tough. We’ve done it before. It’s what we do in this series sometimes. Glad we got it in tonight, though.”

Drivers were called to their cars at 9:55 p.m., but then there was more waiting as track crews cut into the surface to drain the weepers that had popped up during the drying process. The command to start engines came at 10:46 p.m.

Then came a 25-minute red flag on Lap 55 caused by a shower that popped up just outside the track.

Simon Pagenaud’s crew prepares for Saturday’s race.

The rain didn’t fall on what turned into a Penske parade. The team’s three drivers — Newgarden, Will Power and pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud — led all but a four-lap segment during the last series of pit stops.

All three were fastest during Friday’s heat in the two practice sessions and qualifying, but Newgarden was snippy with frustration during his post-qualifying media session.

“I mean, look, it’s all right,” Newgarden said. “I don’t normally like to be short and externally frustrated. But I was just frustrated. Sometimes when you’re feeling competitive, you’re always feeling competitive, but a lot of times you can hold it back if you’re pissed off about something. Sometimes you just want to go back out and redo it. That’s kind of where I was yesterday.

“But after an hour of being pissed about it, we just went to practice and we move on. That’s all there is to it. Yeah, I mean, you’re going to get that. Look, we all want to kick each other’s butts. That’s what it’s all about. Like I was saying, it’s a competitive sport. We all want to be the best. That’s what makes it fun.”

Newgarden found himself in full butt-kicking mode. He led 245 laps, extending his series points lead to 29 over Alexander Rossi.

The Penske parade didn’t turn into a Penske podium. Pagenaud faded in the night, finishing fourth. Power, who always finds trouble here after looking so good in qualifying and practice, came into the pits too hot on the final round of stops, and ended up having to take a stop-and-go penalty. He finished 15th.

It’s the second consecutive year that Newgarden had the fastest car here. He led 229 laps last season, but finished fourth behind Hinchcliffe.

I feel much better tonight,” Newgarden said. “ I really wanted us to win the race. I thought we had a good car to do that, a car capable, a team capable. I’m really pleased we were able to execute as well as we did tonight.

“Kind of redeemed ourselves from last year, too. Last year I felt we had the car. It honestly fell apart with the 100 laps to go. Why did it fall apart last year and how do we make it right again? I think we achieved that tonight.”

His redemption came after a long wait, after a year that felt longer, after a day that crept into night.

“I felt ready to rock,” Newgarden said.

And so he did.

P.M. had turned into A.M., and it was time to go home. Finally.

“Thanks to the fans who stuck around,” Newgarden said. “We understand the ones that had to go home.

“The ones that were here, we hope they enjoyed the show.”

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