(via Motorsport.com) – Under the second and final caution of the night, Team Penske-Chevrolet elected to pit Newgarden even though he was leading, in order to put him on new tires, leaving the Schmidt Peterson-Honda duo of Wickens and James Hinchcliffe running 1-2 with Andretti Autosport-Honda’s Alexander Rossi in third, also on old tires.
At the green flag, Newgarden passed Rossi and Hinchcliffe within half a mile, and on lap 247 of the 250-lap race got around Wickens at Turn 1.
Team co-owner Sam Schmidt, who had been working with team manager Piers Phillips on Wickens’ strategy, told Motorsport.com: “We knew the whole time what we were doing, which is going for the win. We thought Josef would pit but Robert wanted to go for the win, understandably, and I knew if we pitted him that we’d have no chance. So we had to go for it.
“We told the #5 [Hinchcliffe’s half of the team] what our plan was and suggested a split strategy [by pitting Hinchcliffe, leaving Wickens out], because James was struggling a little more in traffic than Robert was. But they made their own call, and that’s fine.
“Honestly, I thought around five people would stay out on old tires for that final run, and that would have won us the race: Josef would have come out sixth or seventh and would have had too many cars to pass to reach us. But in the end, it was just us and Rossi that stayed on old tires.
“But hell – second place – not bad for a rookie, huh?”
Schmidt also admitted he had been amazed by Wickens’ progress since he began testing, despite his excellent junior-formula results and his performances in DTM touring cars.
“I honestly thought Robert would be as strong as he is on the road courses from about one-third of the way into the season,” said Schmidt, “and that he wouldn’t be as good as he already is on ovals until next year. We went through the same process with Simon Pagenaud [2012-’14] and he has a lot of the same characteristics as Simon.
“But he has a fantastic feel for the car on ovals, whereas I think it took Simon four years to get his first oval podium. That’s not a knock to Simon – he’s still my dream driver, per se – but this kid is really good.
“Robert had some pretty good saves in that race as well – he wasn’t just bolted to the ground. He worked for it, he earned it.”
Schmidt also paid tribute to his team for a huge leap forward since a relatively poor preseason test that saw Hinchcliffe in particular struggling near the back.
“First of all, we came here just praying our guys wouldn’t have to work all week on a damaged car with Long Beach just a week away,” he said. “We know we’re going to have good cars there. But to your point, yes, qualifying here saw a major turnaround in performance compared with the test – and I just feel that our engineering team really worked so hard to come back with a different setup package than we ran at the test. And it wasn’t just different – it actually worked.
“So I don’t think it was the drivers getting better… and I don’t think it was me – ha! I don’t think it was anything but the engineers and the mechanics working their asses off to turn it around since the test.”