Josef Newgarden joined the ranks of race winners in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship this weekend, with an impressive display of both raw pace and overtaking prowess as he clinched victory in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, making him the fourth winner in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series in as many races so far this season.

"I can't tell you how nervous I was. In racing I am normally not, but it's just been such a long time coming in trying to do this," Newgarden said in victory lane. "I can't believe now is when it happened ... It's unbelievable what this has turned into. Chevrolet was incredible. I was just getting crazy fuel mileage with fast pace."

As well as Newgarden's maiden win, it's also the first time that CFH Racing has gone to victory lane since the formation of the team over the winter following the merger of Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Both of the new team's co-owners were on hand to share Newgarden's celebrations after the chequered flag came out.

However, impressive though it had been, Newgarden's long-awaited moment of glory was almost stolen from him in the final minutes of the race when Graham Rahal used an alternate fuel-rich race strategy to charge from sixth place all the way up to second in the space of just 18 laps. In the process, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver caught and quickly passed some of the biggest names in the series including Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon.

"Honda did a great job for me today," said Rahal. "This team has come a long way and I think we have proven that. Eventually, one of these days we'll win one of these things. I hope everybody enjoyed the race because we were pushing there until the last second."

CLICK: Full race results from Barber Motorsports Park

The 90-lap race had got underway under gorgeous blue skies and bright sunshine, ideal conditions a world away from the storm-troubled Saturday sessions. Helio Castroneves led his Penske team mate Will Power to the start line, Power having to work hard to stop Simon Pagenaud passing him into turn one which earned the reigning series champion a warning for blocking from race control. That inter-Penske spat gave Josef Newgarden the opening to dive down the inside and leap up from fifth to third ahead of Pagenaud, and moments later the #67 also got the jump on Power to put Newgarden up into second place.

Also making up two positions early was KVSH Racing's Sebastien Bourdais who was up to fifth place at the end of the first lap of the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course by taking advantage of a slow start for Ganassi pair Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. Dixon dropped from fourth to sixth while Kanaan immediately seemed to be struggling for rear grip as he lost three spots, falling from sixth on the grid to ninth place putting him behind Graham Rahal, and Luca Filippi in the second CFH car. Rounding out the top ten as the initial running order settled down was Schmidt Peterson Motorsport's James Hinchcliffe.

Despite Andretti's Carlos Munoz briefly going off-track while running side-by-side by AJ Foyt Racing's Jack Hawksworth, and Francesco Dracone then going for a brief spin off the track in the #19 Dale Coyne Racing car, there were no full course cautions before the field commenced the first round of pit stops. Dixon was in on lap 16 complaining of rear tyre degradation after losing a further position to Rahal, and his team mate Kanaan was similarly in next time round. Power was also struggling with tyre wear and when he lost third place to Pagenaud on lap 18 he decided it was time to make his own first stop of the day.

Power came back out on track right in front of Takuma Sato and did his best to hold the position by chopping in front of the #14 AJ Foyt Racing car, only for the pair to make contact. Power was sent skating through the gravel while Sato spun in the middle of the track; both cars got back underway but Sato's damaged front wing then broke off to trigger the first full course caution of the day for debris in turn 4. At the front, Castroneves and Newgarden both had time to react to the impending caution by diving into pit lane before the yellows came out, but a lugnut dropped by the right front tyre changer cost Castroneves vital seconds which meant that Newgarden was able to exit pit lane well in front.

Pagenaud, Bourdais, Filippi and others hadn't made it in before pit road was closed for the caution and therefore had to do so shortly afterwards once the safety car had gathered the field together. The upshot was that Newgarden was promoted into the lead for the first time of the day for the restart on lap 24, followed by Castroneves, Rahal, Hinchcliffe and Power in fifth place ahead of Dixon. Pagenaud had dropped to 12th place by missing the chance to pit straight away, while Filippi beat Bourdais in the race off pit road for 13th.

Power was removed from the equation shortly afterwards when he was handed a drive-thru penalty for the contact with Sato. That dropped him to the very back of the field in 23rd place where he was soon joined by his team mate Juan Pablo Montoya after the Colombian sustained damage to his front wing and had to pit from ninth place for a replacement. Naturally it didn't take long for both Penskes to scoot right back past Dracone, but even so this was a dangerous part of the track for Power to be on and he only narrowly missed being caught up in an incident between Stefano Coletti and James Jakes, caused by the KV Racing Technology driver attempting a wildly ambitious lunge down the inside of the turn 5 hairpin that sent both himself and Jakes spinning right in front of Power, who carefully threaded his way past the fracas.

Jakes ended up stalled his SPM car which resulted in the second caution of the day on lap 34 and a new round of pit stops for the leaders. This time it was Newgarden who had the hold-up when confusion among his crew members meant he was slow pulling away, handing the position back to Castroneves as a result. However nine cars stayed off pit road entirely, which meant that Rahal now had the lead from Hinchcliffe, Kanaan, Bourdais, Pagenaud and Hawksworth when the green flag came out again on lap 39.

Hawksworth tried an initial jump on Pagenaud but the Frenchman quickly wrested back the advantage, leaving Hawksworth exposed to attack from behind from Charlie Kimball. Hawksworth survived that one and Kimball had to back off, which saw him promptly barged aside by an impatient Montoya. Having better luck making up places was Ryan Hunter-Reay who made a clean pass for 13th place on his team mate Munoz, while Newgarden was also quickly able to repass Castroneves for effective control of the pack of cars that had pitted under the most recent yellow.

Tony Kanaan was the first of the cars that had stayed out to come in for their deferred scheduled second stop on lap 45, the midway point of the race. The others on the same strategy were soon following Kanaan's lead with Hinchcliffe making up a place by coming back out in front of Rahal, who had been held up on his out lap by the slow-moving Dracone. However Rahal immediately pressed home the advantage of having already got his tyres heated up, which gave him the grip to get back around the Canadian a few corners later.

By lap 51 the pit stop cycle had been completed and Newgarden was once again in the lead ahead of Castroneves, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Bryan Herta Autosport's Gabby Chaves, with Will Power back up to ninth, Rahal and Hinchcliffe still scrapping over 11th, and Bourdais in 14th leading Kanaan and Pagenaud while Montoya had fallen to 20th after being the last car to stop.

By now, Newgarden had over three seconds in hand at the front with Castroneves seemingly struggling for pace - so much so that Dixon was soon able to close up and blast by the Penske car for second place on lap 57. All the different pit stop strategies and tyre wear rates meant there was fierce racing right down the order, including Hinchcliffe's breathless wheel-to-wheel battle over tenth place with series newcomer Rodolfo Gonzalez in the DCR #18. Hinchcliffe finally won that round and left the Venezuelan locked in a new battle with Bourdais, all of which was intensely frustrating to Pagenaud who was running immediately behind the pair and unable to get by.

Gonzalez finally removed himself from the battle by pitting on lap 62, and next time around it was race leader Josef Newgarden who was making his final planned stop of the day followed next time around by Dixon and Castroneves, all of them very much on the outside limit of running the remaining 27 laps of the race if there were no further cautions to help them out. Also pitting at this stage was Hunter-Reay who came back out on track right behind a wild battle between series new boys Sage Karam and Jack Hawksworth for what was now 12th place. Unfortunately Hawksworth's day was badly compromised moments later when he lost a lot of time on pit road with an issue involving the air gun.

Graham Rahal had taken over the lead with a four second advantage over Newgarden, who was now having to race with one eye firmly on the fuel gauge if he was to make it home without a final splash-and-dash. Rahal himself was in on lap 70 and came back out in sixth place, now over 20 seconds off the lead but with the advantage of fresher tyres and no need to hold back on fuel consumption. Rahal made quick work of getting around the Will Power car for fifth place and then quickly chased down and dispatched Hunter-Reay for fourth as well.

Newgarden still had a reassuringly large six second lead over the rest of the field - but was that still enough to allow him to save the fuel he needed to make it to the finish? With ten laps remaining, Rahal repeated his signature move at turn 5 to pass third-place man Castroneves, and he now faced a ten second gap down the road to Dixon who was his next target. Rahal wasn't daunted by that prospect in the slightest and gleefully burned fuel to cut the gap by almost two seconds every lap, so that the question became not if he would challenge Dixon, but when. It turned out that the answer was lap 68, but despite his superior pace Rahal soon found that catching was considerably easier than passing as the Kiwi pulled out every trick in the book in his efforts to thwart him.

Rahal finally managed to make the move stick midway through the final lap of the race; however the delay in getting around Dixon meant that it was now too late to hunt down and pass Newgarden for the lead, and the CFH Racing driver duly crossed the finish line having led for a total of 46 laps to claim the chequered flag and his first win in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship in his 55th outing, surpassing his previous two second places at Baltimore in 2013 and Iowa in 2014.

"The car, the team made it easy on me," he insisted. "They deserve the victory. I knew that one of these days it was going to happen with this team because they are so solid ... Let's go to the next one and try to do it again!"

Hanging on in third to join Newgarden and Rahal, Scott Dixon not only continued a remarkable streak of finishing on the podium in every one of the six IndyCar races held at Barber - albeit not yet with an actual win here to his name - he also moved up to third place in the championship standings behind

And crossing the line in fourth place was Will Power, having completed a remarkable comeback from last place following his penalty. But his team mate Castroneves was no where to be seen at the line: he had failed to conserve enough fuel in his final run and ultimately ran out on the last lap, causing him to end the race classified down in 15th place.

"There was just a bit of miscommunication on our fuel number that unfortunately caused us to have to pit with one lap left," said Castroneves. "We were on the same strategy with Newgarden and Dixon, but we were needing to meet a different fuel number than they were and I didn't understand that, so I was trying to balance making the number we had to meet with not giving up a position to Dixon, who was behind me.

"Unfortunately, that caused us to come up short," he added. "I hate it because the AAA guys gave me another car that could've easily won the race, but it was a crazy race out there."

If he had held on to fourth place to the end then Castroneves would have gone into the month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the points lead in the championship. Instead, that honour goes to his team mate Juan Pablo Montoya, even though the Colombian finished only one place ahead of Castroneves after a frustrating race. Slightly more successful on Sunday was the final member of the Penske foursome, Simon Pagenaud, who battled his way back into the top ten by the finish but who never seemed to have the race pace or the strategy to get him to the sharp end in that final stint.

The thrilling and eventful race was the best way of finishing the first quarter of the 2015 season consisting of four races coming thick and fast in under a month. It's also the ideal build-up for what comes next - the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in two weeks time, followed by the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 24. What happens at IMS could prove decisive in setting the template for the rest of the season.

See full race results from Barber Motorsports Park

 

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