Newgarden gives Roger Penske a break with a pole-winning run as IndyCar leadership is questioned

FILE - Josef Newgarden celebrates on the finish line after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 28, 2023. “It’s been probably a tougher offseason for cadence and news, but I really think 2024 can be another great step for us in the IndyCar Series,” said Newgarden. (AP Photo/AJ Mast, File)

FILE – Josef Newgarden celebrates on the finish line after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 28, 2023. “It’s been probably a tougher offseason for cadence and news, but I really think 2024 can be another great step for us in the IndyCar Series,” said Newgarden. (AP Photo/AJ Mast, File)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Josef Newgarden won the pole for IndyCar’s season-opening race on Saturday, giving Team Penske something to celebrate as its leadership faced criticism throughout the paddock for its management of the series.

It made for a weird day on what is supposed to be a celebratory weekend as IndyCar got back on track after a six month offseason. Instead, the mood was muted.

Reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou was eliminated in the first round of qualifying, as was Alexander Rossi, who believed he was impeded by another driver and series officials failed to act. Callum Ilott, the fill-in for injured David Malukas, also was eliminated, joining Rossi as two Arrow McLaren Racing drivers knocked out.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan saw Graham Rahal and Pietro Fittipaldi eliminated in the first round, as was Kyle Kirkwood, a two-time race winner last season for Andretti Global.

It all created a shootout between Newgarden and Felix Rosenqvist for the pole for Sunday’s opener. Rosenqvist qualified second in his debut with Meyer Shank Racing, while Pato O’Ward of McLaren was third, followed by Colton Herta of Andretti.

Romain Grosjean of Juncos Hollinger Racing was fifth in his debut with his new team, and Marcus Ericsson finalized the Fast Six shootout in his debut with Andretti.

Newgarden won four races last year including the Indy 500 but failed to score a single pole.

“This is a rock star team,” Newgarden said Saturday. “I don’t want to get too excited about it. We should enjoy it, but we’ve got to get through tomorrow. Tomorrow is what pays the bills.”

Off the track, there is dissension throughout the paddock as multiple team owners are growing restless with Penske Entertainment’s management of the series. Michael Andretti went so far as to call on Roger Penske to sell the series if he doesn’t invest the capital needed to elevate IndyCar’s profile.

“I think there’s a lot of people on the sidelines thinking, ‘This is a diamond in the rough if you do it right.’ But what you need is big money behind it to get it to that level, and if he’s not willing to do it, I think he should step aside and let someone else buy it,” Andretti said.

His public criticism enraged Penske executives, who have had multiple conversations with Andretti officials since his Friday comments. Penske owns both IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Andretti wasn’t alone in venting; Brad Hollinger, co-owner of tiny Juncos Hollinger Racing, on Saturday outpointed the differences between the energy surrounding a Formula 1 race versus the toned-down promotion of IndyCar events.

“We have by far the best product, the racing is spectacular. It’s phenomenal. Just compare it to what’s going on literally right now over in Saudi Arabia — we already know who is going to win the race, who is going to come in second and third,” Hollinger said of Max Verstappen’s 19th win in the last 20 F1 races.

“Here you can have the top 15 to 20 guys fighting for the top position. But the way it is packaged and promoted needs to be dramatically enhanced. And the only way to do that is to get more money into the program.”

Hollinger called for “meaningfully more investment in marketing and social media.

“You go to any race in the world in Formula 1 and the second you get off the airplane, you know a race is there,” Hollinger continued. “Any race that we have, you get off the plane, and half the people don’t even know that there’s a race at the racetrack.”

Asked if he’d shared his thoughts with Penske, Hollinger said, “in so many words, yes,” but he found that Penske was “intensely focused on the Indy 500, and I understand that, I get that.

“But we have 16 other races and they are exciting, they are tremendous, and could explode (IndyCar).”

Penske received support from Chip Ganassi, his top rival in the series. Ganassi outpointed that Penske took ownership of IndyCar and IMS just two months before the COVID-19 shutdown and he kept the series afloat and continued to pay teams their bonus money even as races were being held without spectators.

“Anybody that can run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with no fans in the stands? He’s got my vote,” Ganassi said. “He coughed up the money to buy the place, and he coughed it up during COVID and kept the series running. I’m going to give him a pass for a couple years. Let him get back on his feet. I’m not going to sharpshoot him. I don’t want to forget about COVID so quickly and all the effects that had.”

Mark Miles, the CEO of Penske Entertainment, said IndyCar lacks the budgets of F1 and NASCAR and any comparisons are unfair.

“Roger will tell you he’s serious, and we’re looking at ways we can increase our growth more dramatically, but we’re not going to make the same investments that might be made if we had $1 billion a year in TV revenue,” Miles said.

In IndyCar’s attempt at damage control, it announced that its 75-second promotional video has been viewed more that 1.9 million times on YouTube. IndyCar also noted that seven different teams were in the top eight of Friday practice — five different teams comprised the Fast Six qualifying shootout — and Jon Bon Jovi will narrate the race intro for NBC’s broadcast.

Bon Jovi is also riding in the “Fastest Seat in Sports” as he will join Helio Castroneves in IndyCar’s two-seater.

IndyCar said merchandise sales are up 30% this weekend and the crowd for the 20th running of the St. Pete race is expected to be the largest in race history.

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