Like so much of Penske Racing, Josef Newgarden has had a tough 2021. Inconsistent speed has plagued every team in the series but Chip Ganassi Racing, but for Penske it is a truly unusual occurrence. It is even more unusual for Newgarden, a hyper-consistent driver who has built his championship career in a very Scott Dixon mold of elite speed tempered with both patience and speed at every type of track the series visits. That makes him one of the best in the world in an open wheel car on a short oval, where chaos seems to reign for absolutely everyone else.
On a day this chaotic, there is nobody more qualified to win on the uneven short intermediate at Gateway Motorsports Park.
The race started with a long series of failed starts and re-starts, with no serious green flag runs until 80 laps into what was just a 260-lap race. The most significant of those incidents saw the Chip Ganassi Racing teammates of Alex Palou and Scott Dixon, the drivers that came into the day first and third in the championship standings respectively, wrecked by a too-ambitious move by Rinus VeeKay. Dixon ran a few extra laps to make up some vital championship points, but it was race over for all three and a disastrous day for Ganassi's elite program.
That opened the door for two cars each from Penske and Andretti Autosport, with the patient Newgarden holding off his ultra-aggressive teammate Will Power and Andretti's even more aggressive duo of Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi. Herta would fight past all three to grab the lead mid-race, but on his very next stop he spun his tires while landing and lost drive to one of his rear wheels. Rossi would switch to a fuel mileage strategy, only to find himself hard in the wall pushing too hard to make up time from fourth. As a result, neither would finish.
That left Newgarden in a battle with Power and, incredibly, Pato O'Ward. The Arrow McLaren SP driver suddenly found himself in the hunt after running in the back half of the top ten before attrition struck, but by the time he got within a second of Newgarden he no longer had anything for Newgarden. It left the two-time series champion from Penske winning, O'Ward in second, and Power in third.
Coupled with the issues the Ganassi cars suffered, those excellent results made it a banner night in the championship for the race's top two. O'Ward took back the championship lead by ten over Palou, while the crash and win allowed Newgarden to claw back into the championship hunt at 22 points back of the new leader. Dixon fell to 43 points back, while Marcus Ericsson completes the group with a realistic shot as a distant fifth, still hanging onto a shot at it at 60 points back.
Behind the top three, it was an exceptional night for a couple of rookies with no oval experience before 2021. In fourth, Penske's Scott McLaughlin grabbed his second top five on an ova in four starts by staying patient and making great choices in a fast car. Romain Grosjean finished just 14th on his oval racing debut, but before making a few mistakes late in the race he made some of the day's most exciting moves while climbing into the middle of the top ten. Grosjean is widely expected to either join a bigger IndyCar team or commit at a longer term to his current Dale Coyne Racing program at the end of this season; now that he seems interested in racing ovals going forward, he will hope to be a championship contender either way.
IndyCar has a couple weeks off before its closing stretch, but it will be one to remember. The series starts climbing down the west coast at Portland in three weeks, then closes the year by racing at Laguna Seca and Long Beach in the weekends that follow. O'Ward, Palou Newgarden, Dixon, and Ericsson all have a very real chance at taking a championship.