Neither driver made it through to the Firestone Fast Six, but had differing issues. Newgarden believes the setup change made to the #1 Team Penske-Chevrolet between Q1 and Q2 went in the wrong direction, and he wound up eighth.
“We had a really poor Q2 right from the jump,” said the 2017 and ’19 champion. “On the black tires [Firestone’s harder primary tires] I was half a second slower than I was in Q1.
“The adjustments that we did in between didn't seem to really pan out…. I think if we just had our form for Q1, we would have been OK. We took a swing at it and it was the wrong way to go. It's one of those deals: you try but sometimes you try the wrong way.”
In fact, Newgarden would have been ninth, but one of his teammates, Simon Pagenaud, who lay seventh in Q2 times, caused a red flag and lost his two best laps. The 2016 champion’s penalty would also benefit Dixon as the Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda driver moved from 12th to 11th, but Dixon felt brake-bias issues and surprising tire behavior had left him on the back foot.
“The day started not too bad and the car was pretty good,” reported the five-time champion who has yet to win at St. Petersburg. “The biggest thing we've been struggling with all day is braking. We've had a lot of rear locking biases, like 62 or 63 percent. We didn't want to change any of the brake setup before qualifying because at least we knew what we had.
“In qualifying, it seemed in Q2 we couldn't build the tire temp quick enough. It showed on the blacks: we were kind of last until the last lap, then we jumped up to fifth. With the slow out-lap on the reds, I just didn't have enough time.
“Then I had to abort the first lap with traffic as well. Really only had one lap. There was no temp in the tires. The car was actually pretty good, especially on the long run, once we got temperature into the tires.”
As a result, the two aces appear to be taking different approaches for the race tomorrow. For Newgarden, who lies 32 points behind Dixon, only a win will do. Indeed, even if the defending champion emulates his 2019 performance at St. Pete and comes through to win, Dixon has only to finish in the top nine to clinch his sixth IndyCar championship.
“I feel positive about our Hitachi car,” said Newgarden. “I think Team Chevy has done a good job this weekend. Good confidence that we have something to attack with.”
Asked if he’ll take a different approach to the race, Newgarden replied, “Same as always. If this was any other weekend, we'd be doing the same thing. It's disappointing we qualified eighth, but it's not the worst position. We have a little more work to do. We're going to focus on what strategy we can implement, being good at the start, manage a really good race that hopefully can produce a win. It's as simple as that. We're going to treat this race as any other…
“I don't think it will be more aggressive or less aggressive than what we normally are. We're just going to try to charge the front.”
Newgarden also stated: “I'm not sure yet what our plan will be. I think it will be a pretty aggressive race for most people as far as running pretty hard on fuel. I don't think you'll see a ton of fuel save. But there's options there – big options.”
Validation of Newgarden’s final remark appeared to come from Dixon. As one of the best drivers at fuel saving while going fast, he currently appears to be in favor of taking a two-stop strategy, which will involve some careful fuel usage, because the Firestone rubber is lasting so well.
“When we went to Sebring earlier in the year, which is really the only place we get to run the street course tire, it felt like they wore out a lot quicker than usual,” said the 40-year-old New Zealander. “They came in pretty quick. We were expecting them to act a lot different than what they have.
“My first run this morning, it took seven or eight laps before I put in my quickest lap [and were] pretty consistent to, like, Lap 25. We were thinking the two-stop [route] was going to be pretty tough, not because of the fuel mileage but tire degradation. But even the reds [Firestone’s alternate compound] seem to be holding on really well.
“We'll find out a little bit more about that tomorrow in the warmup, but the tire has reacted a lot different than we thought it was going to. I think the tire deg, at the end of a stint, doesn't seem like it's going to be a problem.”
Regarding his starting position, he commented: “It is what it is. Starting 11th, we’ve just got to try to stay out of trouble and have a good day.
“If you guess the strategy right, you can win from any spot. We’ve just got to stay clean and obviously try to move up a little bit on pace and hopefully good pit stops and things like that – eliminate any kind of issues there…
“Traffic and restarts are going to be pretty interesting as well. We definitely need to focus on just trying to keep it clean, pick off cars when we can.”