The night’s story unfolded differently for each of the five Verizon IndyCar Series newcomers who took the green flag Saturday night at ISM Raceway.
Robert Wickens, Zach Veach, Matheus Leist, Kyle Kaiser and Pietro Fittipaldi all earned their first IndyCar points on an oval. For Kaiser and Fittipaldi, who will race part-time in 2018, the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoneix Grand Prix was their first IndyCar race.
Throughout the Phoenix weekend, Wickens demonstrated that his pole-winning and race-dominating performance at the season opener was no fluke. The Canadian driver delivered a strong qualifying performance and started from the outside of the third row next to teammate James Hinchcliffe.
On race day, Wickens led 44 laps — only pole sitter Sebastien Bourdais and early leader Will Power led more. During the final caution, Wickens’ team made the bold decision to keep both of its drivers on track while much of the field, including eventual winner Josef Newgarden, pitted for fresh Firestone rubber.
Wickens inherited the lead thanks to the strategy call and held off Newgarden until Lap 347 of 250 after the Team Penske driver had already passed both Alexander Rossi and Hinchcliffe, who both have considerably more oval experience than Wickens.
“I did as much as I could without crashing both of us, so I (didn’t) think there’s any stopping him,” said Wickens of Newgarden after the race. “I think once he built up the courage to just out brake me around the outside, it was pretty easy.”
Wickens went on to claim his first career podium in IndyCar competition and once again led the way for the three full-time rookies, furthering his lead in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings to 29 points over Veach after just two races.
Veach started in last position after a disappointing qualifying effort but slowly worked his way into the middle of the pack, running in 20th position from Laps 14 to 42 and in 16th after yellow-flag pit stops on Lap 43.
Green-flag stops between Laps 112 and 129 saw Veach emerge in 14th. He gained a postion on Lap 153 and held on to 13th until he was put a lap down by Wickens on Lap 166.
With only 19 cars running at the race’s conclusion and 11 on the lead lap, Veach brought his No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda home in 16th.
While Veach’s run might be characterized as steady, Leist’s was anything but free of trouble. Four penalties were issued during the race and half of them were assessed to Leist and the No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.
The first came on Lap 47 when Leist pitted under cuation. Contact with equipment prompted INDYCAR to issue a warning and a post-race monetary fine. Following the Lap 50 restart, Leist worked his way up to 17th and on Lap 87, he got around Gabby Chaves for 16th.
A botched pit stop led to one of Leist’s tires coming loose and nearly reaching the track surface. The resulting spin and damage to the car plus a drive-through penalty assessed by INDYCAR dropped Leist nine laps down to the leader and relegated him to a 19th-place finish.
Despite the mishaps, Leist joined Veach and Wickens as the only rookies to finish the race.
Kaiser, driving the No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet at Phoenix, completed 174 of 250 laps of his first race in the series. The reigning Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion ran in 12th prior to the first caution and assumed 15th when racing resumed on Lap 50. He emerged from green-flag pit stops a lap down in 20th on Lap 119.
Despite moving up one position, light contact with the SAFER Barrier ended his day prematurely. A yellow flag was not thrown for Kaiser’s incident due to a lack of debris on track.
Fittipaldi had the shortest debut race of the rookie class, completing just 40 laps in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. The young driver brought out the first caution flag on Lap 40 when he found the SAFER Barrier in Turn 4.
“We were running well, but then I caught a group of cars and I ran a bit hard,” said Fittipaldi. “There was a lot of turbulence and with that group of cars, I wasn’t expecting that much difference and the Paysafe car just went away from me.
“Once you get in the gray, you just go straight into the wall.”
Owing to his strong qualifying performance, Fittipaldi ran in the 11th position until his incident. Because of his early exit, Fittipaldi was scored in last place and raced for a total of just 14 minutes and 53 seconds.
In what could end up being the “year of the rookie,” the group will next tackle the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15.