March Madness is reserved for basketball. It’s a staple of the sports calendar, and it's defined by underdogs pulling off unthinkable victories and half-court heaves that beat the buzzer.
IndyCar tried its best to get in on the madness Sunday. Josef Newgarden’s lunge on the final corner of the last lap put him just ahead of Scott McLaughlin at the finish line as the twin checkered flags flew at Texas Motor Speedway.
McLaughlin passed pole sitter Felix Rosenquist on the first lap and pulled out to a nearly 14-second advantage in the first stage of the race — roughly a half-lap advantage — on then-second place teammate Josef Newgarden following the first pitstops of the race. He was flying, and his car was far and away the best in the field in the first third of the 248-lap race.
Then, McLaughlin reached a pack of lapped cars, and backed off dramatically to keep himself out of trouble. Newgarden cut the lead to just 6 seconds before Takuma Sato hit the turn two wall to bring out a caution.
McLaughlin kept the lead following the second round of pit stops at lap 104 under the caution, staying ahead of Newgarden on pit road.
He pulled a big enough gap to stay in front on the restart on lap 114, then managed the same following a caution brought out one lap later by Kyle Kirkwood, who made some bold passes early before spinning out in turn four.
Another accident took out Devlin DeFrancesco, Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves. Once again, McLaughlin held off any immediate challenges on the restart.
It took until lap 160 and an overtake by Rinus VeeKay on the narrow outside line to show any signs of weakness in McLaughlin’s car.
Then, all hell broke loose. Will Power overtook both McLaughlin and VeeKay in a spectacular move into turn one, then Scott Dixon passed McLaughlin into turn three during the same lap — all reminiscent of some of the most exciting IndyCar races at Texas. For the first time in Sunday’s race, McLaughlin ran behind other cars.
Once the series of cautions were over and the wild passes took place, it was time for the drivers’ final pit stops, and McLaughlin cycled back to the lead. Newgarden followed in second.
Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Champion and second year IndyCar driver, made some memorable passes in his best IndyCar performance to date. He passed teammates Dixon and defending series champion Alex Palou to get into seventh place, worked around VeeKay late to push up to sixth, then went up to fifth place after passing former series and Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud.
Dixon saved his tires a little more than Johnson and passed him back before the race was up, but Johnson’s sixth-place run was easily the biggest story of the day, with an older underdog almost worth giving up on showing everyone he’s still got it.
Then, Newgarden went and pulled up from the logo to win the race.
Newgarden only led three laps on Sunday, but he led the only lap that matters.
He was ecstatic in victory lane, telling McLaughlin he was either going to win the race or put his car in the wall with that move, and was thankful he pulled it off.
As for Roger Penske, the team that bears his name won its 600th race across all forms of motorsports Sunday. He delivered six $100 bills to Newgarden as soon as he got to victory lane.
Texas Motor Speedway itself is in turmoil. The track, which has hosted IndyCar races since 1997, has a dark stain on the outside of its corners. The stain is the remnants of a sticky compound called PJ1 the NASCAR series used to try and increase passing opportunities for the heavier stock cars at the track. For IndyCar, that means decreased grip levels by an estimated 20% on the darker track surface.
Various ideas implemented didn’t fix the issue of cars slipping and spinning out when they tried to drive on the darker surface. However, the problem wasn’t as severe this year, and the race featured the most passing since the PJ1 compound was put down before IndyCar’s 2020 race.
The racing Sunday proved Texas can put on a good show, even if not the same as it was before it got repaved and, objectively, ruined, when it featured three-wide racing throughout the race.
Newgarden, meanwhile, proved you don’t need to play basketball to pull off some madness in March.