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Newgarden goes back-to-back at the Indy 500, giving Roger Penske a record-extending 20th victory

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Josef Newgarden has put his cheating scandal behind him to become the first consecutive winner of the Indianapolis 500 since Helio Castroneves 22 years ago. He gave Roger Penske a record-extending 20th victory in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’. .”

The Tennessean passed Pato O’Ward on the final lap of Sunday’s rain-delayed race to become the first driver to win consecutive 500s since Castroneves did it for Penske in 2001 and 2002. And like last year, Newgarden retired his Chevrolet-powered car on the track and climbed through a hole in the fence to celebrate with fans in the stands.

“I love this audience. When we win here I always have to be in the crowd, I always do,” said Newgarden, who earned a $440,000 bonus from trophy maker BorgWarner for winning consecutive 500s. The award was established in 1995 and claimed only once, by Castroneves.

Penske had been watching the race high above the speedway and happily waved his arm as Newgarden crossed the finish line. Then he hugged his wife. It took less than an hour for the sign indicating Penske’s parking lot on the highway to be changed from “19” to “20.”

O’Ward dropped his head over his handlebars in bitter disappointment. He was trying to become the first Mexican to win the Indy 500 in 108 runs.

It looked like he had been crying when he finally took off his helmet. He finished sixth in his Indy 500 debut, then fourth and then second in 2022, when he was accused of not being aggressive enough to race Marcus Ericsson for the win.

Last year he refused to back down and crashed while racing for the win. As O’Ward bided his time in the closing laps (he and Newgarden traded the lead several times) he waited for the winning pass on the final lap.

Newgarden immediately took it back two turns later.

“It’s hard to put into words: we went back, we went forward, we went back, some people were riding like maniacs,” O’Ward said. “We had so many close race endings. Just so close again. …I put that car through things I never thought it could do. It’s always heartbreak when you’re so close, especially when it’s not the first time and you don’t know how many chances you have.”

O’Ward has finished second behind Newgarden in six different races and was still struggling with his emotions an hour after the race. He said after the race that he had been battling the flu for the past week and had barely slept for the past five days.

“I’m doing well. It’s been a tough month, there’s so much to this race,” said O’Ward. “I think I’m a person who wears my heart on my sleeve. I don’t really hide anything. And it’s just, when you get that close, and it just doesn’t seem to happen, it’s just a lot of emotion.”

He said he deliberately took the time to get out of the car and take off his helmet because “I just wanted to calm down. It was wet there.”

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon finished third as the highest-finishing Honda driver and had empathy for O’Ward. A six-time IndyCar champion, Dixon is considered the best driver of his era, and has one victory in the Indy 500.

“It’s a privilege to race here, right? I’m in a situation where I’m lucky to have won, but Pato has come close a few times,” said Dixon. “It can go in cycles. As I’ve said many times, finishing second sucks. It’s terrible. You’d rather finish last, I think, almost at this spot and be out of the race early. He’ll be fine. He has plenty of time.”

The win was an incredible rebound for Newgarden, who was disqualified from his season-opening win in March last month because Team Penske had illegal push-to-pass software on its cars. Newgarden used the extra horsepower three times in the victory, and it took IndyCar almost six weeks to discover the Penske manipulation.

Roger Penske, owner of the racing team, IndyCar, the Indy 500 and the speedway, has suspended four crew members, including team president Tim Cindric. Cindric’s suspension was a huge blow to Newgarden, as Cindric is considered the best quarterback in the series.

Newgarden was delighted with the win and put the push-to-pass scandal behind him.

“Absolutely, they can say whatever they want, I don’t even care anymore,” he said. “It’s always a team win. This win epitomizes a team win. I’m grateful to Roger Penske, he had my back. He’s the man. He’s a legend.”

Rain delayed the start of the race by four hours and ruined NASCAR star Kyle Larson’s chance to run “The Double.” Due to the Indy delay, he missed the start of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

While Larson was decent for most of the day, two rookie mistakes led to an 18th-place finish. Within minutes of the end of the race, he was in a helicopter bound for a plane to North Carolina.

“I’m proud to have finished, but disappointed in myself,” said Larson, who has a two-year contract with Arrow McLaren and Hendrick Motorsports for Indy and could return in 2025.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon finished third as the highest-finishing Honda driver and was followed by Alexander Rossi, O’Ward’s teammate at Arrow McLaren Racing. Chevrolet took three of the top four places.

A first-lap crash killed 2022 winner Ericsson, Tom Blomqvist and Pietro Fittipaldi as three Honda drivers failed to complete a lap. In total, Honda drivers finished in the last seven places.

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AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing