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 Newgarden, a two-time IndyCar series champion.
He finally broke through Sunday, though, winning the Indy 500 to extend the team owner Roger Penske’s record to 19 victories and give him his first win at the race since Penske agreed to buy Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late 2019. Newgarden did it with an audacious pass of last year’s race winner, Marcus Ericsson, during a frantic 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,” Newgarden said. “We’ve had to come out and put on a brave face. 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.”
He continued: “But I think a lot of people view this race and this championship with that lens. 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, race control moved Newgarden from fourth to second 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.
After the race, 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 the crowd, estimated at more than 300,000, to celebrate. Then, Newgarden climbed the fence to mimic Helio Castroneves, the longtime Team Penske driver and four-time Indy 500 winner.
Newgarden, a 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 0.0974 seconds.
Ericsson immediately criticized IndyCar’s decision to hold a one-lap shootout to the checkered flag. He 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 pit lane.
“I think it wasn’t enough laps to go to do what we did,” Ericsson said. “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. I can’t agree with that.”
Newgarden and Ericsson were followed by Santino Ferrucci, who gave the 88-year-old A.J. Foyt, nicknamed Super Tex, his team’s best finish since Kenny Brack 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 the Arrow McLaren team.
What was on pace to be the fastest Indy 500 in history ended with three red flags in the final 16 laps.
The first came for a crash involving Felix Rosenqvist and Kyle Kirkwood, who were near the front of the lead pack. Kirkwood’s car went upside down into the catch fence, beginning a terrifying, spark-filled ride through the short chute.
One of Kirkwood’s wheels sailed over the fencing and narrowly cleared the packed grandstand. The wheel did not injure anyone but damaged a parked car, a spokesman for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Alex Damron, wrote in an email. One person was treated at the infield care center and released because of other debris from the crash, the spokesman added.
On the restart, Pato O’Ward — who already had a restart called off for setting too slow of a pace — was shuffled from first to third as Newgarden shot to the lead. O’Ward and Ericsson were then side by side entering Turn 3 and touched wheels, and O’Ward slid into the wall and out of the race in another disappointment for Arrow McLaren.
Agustín Canapino did a 360-spin behind him, snapping a brake line. He was unable to stop and collided with O’Ward’s car.
Suddenly, the race had its second red flag with six laps to go.
Last year’s race was red-flagged with five to go, when Ericsson was leading O’Ward to the finish. Ericsson held him off the rest of the way, and many criticized O’Ward for not making a more aggressive move for the win.
Newgarden didn’t make the same mistake with Ericsson out in front of him.
As Newgarden crossed the yard of bricks, Penske and his entire executive committee jumped up and down in celebration on an elevated platform near the start-finish line. And for a moment, Penske, the 86-year-old team owner, looked like a child filled with joy.
“The last two laps, I forgot about being the track owner and said ‘Let’s go for it,’” said Penske, who joined Newgarden in an open-top Chevy Camaro for a victory lap around the speedway.
Penske’s parking spot inside the speedway has been marked simply 18 for the last four years. Newgarden was still completing his postrace media obligations when the spot was changed to 19.
Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed reporting.