I'm not very good at math. It's one of the reasons why I'm a writer and not, as I wished I could be as a kid, an astronaut. But if pressured, I can still solve rudimentary equations - particularly if that is a requirement for an important decision.
Josef Newgarden faced an equation of his own as he strapped into his #67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara DW12 on the grid in Long Beach, California on Sunday. It was less an equation of numbers than of variables, but it was an equation that required a solution nonetheless.
The situation in which Newgarden found himself was not an alien one if you look at his past career. Ahead of him was a pace car and vast swaths of open track. Only one other car was alongside him, and the rest of the field was arrayed in formation behind his rear wing. The car next to him held a multiple INDYCAR champion - the Scot with the Italian name, the superstar spouse, and a seat with one of the two most dominating IndyCar teams of the past two decades.
It was rarefied air Newgarden was breathing, yes - sitting on the outside pole position with Dario Franchitti in the biggest INDYCAR street race of the year. But Newgarden, far from being intimidated, had made a startling conclusion based upon his own mental calculus.
He was going to go for the race lead in the first turn of the first lap.
To understand how Newgarden arrived at the solution to his inner calculations, it is important to explain the variables at play.
The biggest one was the grid order. By virtue of Chevrolet's unprecedented move to replace all of its competitors' engines due to a problematic system fault discovered by Andretti Autosport in testing at Sears Point, California, Newgarden's 7th-place qualifying run had turned into the outside pole position. The strongest cars so far this year, including those of Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Helio Castroneves, were gridded behind him. It was the best track position that Newgarden has ever seen in INDYCAR - or was likely to see for a while to come.
The second big variable was the circuit itself. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach may be the most famous of INDYCAR's street races, but it is also one of the most challenging upon which to pass. Track position - and, more importantly, clean air - is as priceless as fine jewels. Even with differing pit strategies muddying up the waters during the race, the undeniable fact on street courses is that the lead car has a significant advantage with a clear track and no traffic to deal with.
Variable number three happened to be Newgarden's team. The last thing in the world anyone wants to do is disparage Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, considering who the team principals are and the challenges they had to go through to even make the grid this season. With blank sidepods and a late-arriving Honda motor bolted into the chassis, the team is one of the many underdogs in the field - and their rookie driver, talented as he is, is one of the reasons why. Hard work and dedication notwithstanding, they were not anywhere near the top of the INDYCAR food chain.
But perhaps the most critical variable in the entire equation might have been the most simple: the element of surprise. Newgarden had it. Franchitti, a veteran driver and series champion, would likely be expecting a certain level of unspoken etiquette to rule the first few laps of the Long Beach race. With new cars and engines, the field in general had been far more careful in the first two races than they had been in the years previous.
Newgarden collected the variables in play, added them together, and arrived at a solution. There was opportunity here, but it was an enormous gamble. The notoriously tight first turn - situated at the end of the blisteringly-fast front straightaway - had a nasty reputation as a devourer of the bold. The smart move - the safe move - was to take it easy, slip behind Franchitti, and hope for an opening. Newgarden could conceivably get a much-better-than-expected top ten - maybe even a top five - finish out of the circumstances at hand.
The thing about racers is that they know that the smart and safe move is not always the winning move. Faced with the decision between playing a conservative game of race management and taking a bold risk, Newgarden chose the latter. If he had the run at the green, he would take the chance on the pass. It wasn't the answer that most of those who were about to watch him would expect - least of all Franchitti - but the math was good and the result had survived the proofs.
As the green flag waved, Newgarden and Franchitti bolted forward, Franchitti in the lead. At first, it looked like Newgarden had missed his chance. The rookie driver slid over behind Franchitti's Target-liveried car briefly. But Franchitti, having gotten the hole shot, seemed unable to exploit it; Newgarden, with more momentum, saw the window of opportunity crack open and charged through it. He whipped to the right of the veteran racer and stormed into the braking zone in the outside line.
It almost worked.
For certain, it was a breathtaking sight, and Franchitti was clearly taken off-guard - as Newgarden had intended. The cars rolled through the first turn side-by-side with plenty of room, and it looked as though young Josef's bet had paid off. But as the drivers got back on the gas, Franchitti's car drifted up out of the inside line and Newgarden's pinched lower. A wisp of light contact, Newgarden's rear wheels lost traction, and the #67 slammed into the tire barrier.
Newgarden's audacious gamble had come up snake-eyes. Immediately the second-guessing started amongst the pundits. It was a rookie mistake. It was too aggressive too early. And so on and so forth. The contentiousness did not abate even after Justin Wilson successfully pulled off the same move on the ensuing restart and pulled away to a four-second lead - proof of concept of the soundness of Newgarden's racer math.
People in the know, however, gave Newgarden the proper credit for his initiative. In an era where drivers outnumber racers, the rookie's move was a racer move - and he had committed to it without recriminations after the fact. Had there been even an inch more room to be had, Newgarden would have been the day's hero - but as is often the case, that spare inch isn't always available, especially when a rookie demands it from a veteran.
At the day's end, as teams huddled in airports waiting to fly home, race director and former racer Beaux Barfield expressed his admiration for Newgarden's boldness on Twitter. It was simply an expression of respect from one racer to another, but the sentiment was not appreciated by some of the members of other teams who thought it sounded like bias instead of an opinion. After a long, brutal day at the track, perhaps fatigue contributed to that assessment. Maybe nearly a decade of DanicaMania had something to do with it too. But ultimately they missed the bigger picture.
Newgarden, after all, is one of INDYCAR's best proofs-of-concept on the grid. Here you have a young American driver who worked his way along the Road to Indy - an honest-to-goodness graduate of the ladder system who started at the ground floor in karting. He is young, handsome, well-spoken, and daring, with a shelf full of trophies to add weight to his magnetism. He earned his way into his ride with SFHR based on results, not because of a name or a pocketbook. He is a talent which could have been parlayed into success in Europe like so many other drivers have pursued - yet he chose to pursue his ambitions in INDYCAR even in the face of expansive opportunity.
Even for someone as terrible at math as I am, this equation has a pretty simple solution. The driver I like to call "The Racer of RIGHT DAMN NOW" (a riff on his former Twitter handle "raceroftomorrow") is good for INDYCAR. And if he had made the ballsy, unexpected pass on Franchitti - well, that would have been good for INDYCAR too.
In the short run, Josef Newgarden's daring did not result in the payoff he had hoped for. Looking more long-term, however, there will be a big payoff due. It's a mathematical certainty.