INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis 500 is the one race Josef Newgarden desperately wanted to win.
It’s basically the only race that matters to his boss.
Coming up empty for 11 consecutive years had become personal for the two-time IndyCar champion.
Newgarden finally broke through Sunday, though, winning the Indy 500 to extend team owner Roger Penske’s record to 19 victories — and the first since he bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Newgarden did it with an audacious pass of defending race winner Marcus Ericsson during a frantic, controversial 2.5-mile sprint to the finish.
“We’ve had a tough go here the last three, four years, and we’ve had a lot of questions to answer every day, after every qualifying weekend. We’ve had to come out and put on a brave face,” Newgarden said. “It’s just not an easy place to succeed at. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the fact that if you don’t win the 500, your career is a failure.
“But I think a lot of people view this race and this championship with that lens,” Newgarden continued. “The 500 stands alone and if you are not able to capture one, the career really is a failure.”
After the race was red-flagged for the third time in the final 16 laps, Newgarden was moved from fourth to second by race control following a review of the running order at the time the yellow flag waved.
He took advantage of his improved position to slingshot around Ericsson on the restart and hold him off from there.
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.
The 32-year-old from Nashville is the first American to win the Indy 500 since Alexander Rossi in 2016. He led five of the 200 laps and beat Ericsson in the fourth-closest finish in 107 years with a margin of victory of .0974 seconds.
“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 IndyCar’s decision to hold a one-lap shootout to the checkered flag. The Swede believed the race should have ended under caution, with him the winner, rather than having the green flag fly on the first lap out of the pits.
“I think it wasn’t enough laps to go to do what we did. I don’t think it’s safe to go out of the pits on cold tires for a restart when half the field is sort of still trying to get out on track when we go green,” Ericsson said. “I can’t agree with that.”
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 after recovering from a crash on pit road, and Rossi was fifth on what was an otherwise disappointing day for Arrow McLaren.