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LEXINGTON, Ohio — After dealing with more than a season's worth of bad luck with their cars out-front late in races over the past four weeks, Team Penske finished a race weekend on-top for the first time in 2021.
Starting from pole — his third consecutive P1 award — Josef Newgarden dominated for a third consecutive IndyCar on Sunday, leading 73 of 80 laps to take the checkered flag in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. The victory was Team Penske's first this season, the sixth team to take the top step of the podium, and it came on the team's 50th anniversary weekend of their first win (July 3, 1971 in the Shaefer 500 at Pocono International Raceway by Mark Donohue).
It followed a three-race month in June ripe with misfortune for the team. In Race 1 of the Detroit Grand Prix, Will Power led 37 of 70 laps, but saw his ECU struggle to restart after a late red flag. Leading with five laps to go, he finished 20th. The next day, Newgarden started on pole and led the first 67 laps, but was overtaken in a late-race restart after a series of crashes bunched up the field. After what turned out to be a risky call on tire strategy, his red tires had diminished too much, and he was caught with three laps to go by eventual race-winner Pato O'Ward. Newgarden still managed second.
Two weeks later at Road America, Newgarden led 32 of the first 53 laps in a 55-lap contest when, on another late restart, his gearbox suffered a failure that two weeks later still was leaving team president Tim Cindric scratching his head. Over the final two laps, the Mid-Ohio winner would sink like a rock through the field and finish as the last car on the lead lap in 21st.
In total, June added up to 136 laps led in those three drives over a total of 195. With Sunday now complete, Team Penske is empty-handed no more in 2021.
"It was really hard to hang on, but I had my wingman (strategist Tim Cindric) coaching me all the way," Newgarden said on the post-race broadcast. "This team has been doing the job. Everyone's been giving me a hard time with what's up with us not winning a race, but I don't think these people at Team Penske could have done anything different. We've been in the game almost every race.
"It's great to see a win here finally on the year, but we're probably going to need three or four more of these if we want to win a championship, but I know this team is capable of it."
Newgarden's win didn't come without another late challenge. Having led much of the race by a gap of 6-8 seconds, Marcus Ericsson closed in drastically over the closing 15 laps. An advantage that sat at 7.1 seconds with 14 laps to go shrunk to just 1.5-seconds with two laps to go and under a second as the two crossed the start-finish line to take the white flag. When they took the checkered flag, Ericsson sat just 0.8790 seconds back of his second win of the year and in IndyCar.
"We were pushing very, very hard there at the end to try and catch Josef. A couple more laps and we could have challenged for it," Ericsson said. "But in the end here, (second-place) was a great result today."
Series points leader Alex Palou capped the podium after a great final pitstop where he jumped Scott Dixon (4th on Sunday) and Alexander Rossi (5th) for Palou's 6th podium in 10 races this year. The leading Ganassi driver extended his lead on Pato O'Ward (8th) from 28 points to 39, with Dixon in 3rd 56 points back. Newgarden took a mighty cut out of what was an 88-point deficit to start the weekend in 4th. He's now 69 points back of his 3rd IndyCar championship headed into a 35-day break.
Graham Rahal finished 6th, with Romain Grosjean (7th), O'Ward (8th), Santino Ferrucci (9th) and Takuma Sato (10th) rounding out the top-10 Sunday.
On the other end of the spectrum, two crashes in the first three laps of Sunday's race sealed the fates of the bottom four drivers. On the opening lap, James Hinchcliffe got into the back of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay as the pack bunched up through Turn 4, spinning them both. A couple rows back, Romain Grosjean got into the back of Felix Rosenqvist, spinning the Arrow McLaren SP No. 7 with Rosenqvist coming back for his first race since June 12 due to injury.
All three of those cars headed to the pits immediately, with Hinchcliffe going back out immediately after new tires. Rosenqvist and Hunter-Reay's cars needed some work, and they finished Sunday two laps down in 23rd and 24th, respectively.
On Lap 3 just after the second green flag of the day, Dixon was running wheel-to-wheel on the outside of Will Power in Turn 5, and the two came together. Power spun in the middle of the track, and moments later coming over the hill, Ed Jones couldn't avoid running into Power's No. 12. Both drivers' day ended there, with Power leaving the infield car center with his right wrist wrapped.
"Super disappointed to be out that early," Power said. "(Dixon) squeezed me down, and I had nowhere to go. I was on the curve. I should have known he would be aggressive. But that's what you get when you choose black (tires). People are going to attack you hard."
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Josef Newgarden wins Mid-Ohio for Penske's first win of 2021