MADISON, Ill. (AP) — Josef Newgarden saw the checkered flag flying out of his windshield as the hardened rookie sprinted closer and closer into his rearview mirror.
David Malukas came in fast for the leaders late Saturday night after a long rain delay and a tense race seemingly out of nowhere.
The 20-year-old flew and shot outside and around Scott McLaughlin for second. Then he aimed for the last lap Newgarden, the two-time IndyCar champion, has not been able to control the championship race so far.
Newgarden thought, “Wow, the kid is hungry.”
Unfortunately, Malukas ran out of time on the 1.25-mile oval outside of St. Louis. He picked up McLaughlin, and if there had been one more lap, Malukas might have claimed his first IndyCar win.
He’s still learning oval racing, although his results show he’s a fast learner. His 16th place finish at the Indianapolis 500 was his lowest of the five ovals on the schedule; His second place finish on Saturday night was the best of his first IndyCar season and his first career podium.
And yet he has to wonder if a rookie mistake cost him a chance to overrun Newgarden for victory at Gateway.
On fresh tires for the final run of the night, Malukas waited two laps to experiment with the top groove at Gateway. His car rocketing into the top lane, he sailed past McLaughlin on the outside. Despite running out of time to catch Newgarden, Malukas was fast closing as Newgarden claimed his consecutive fifth win of the season.
Why did it take him so long to try it on the wing?
“It was a bit unfortunate that I did it so late. But I think rookie season, rookie stuff,” Malukas said. “I’ll put it in the back of my mind and remember it for next time.”
It wasn’t his only mistake that night: Malukas was scolded by McLaughlin for mispronouncing his last name. It’s moo-GLOCK’-luhn, said McLaughlin, and there’s no soft h.
Either way, second place for Malukas was as good as Saturday night’s win. He even got to celebrate with champagne when Newgarden mercifully allowed the underage Malukas to spray the real stuff instead of the grape juice he was given.
“Why didn’t they give me the real stuff? It’s no fun,” said Malukas. “Maybe I can just tell them I’ll shut up, I don’t know.”
Just three months ago he was saddened by losing the Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors to Jimmie Johnson, who finished under Malukas but for both a stunning show of speed in qualifying and his ambassadorship for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was rewarded.
Malukas’ supporters were outraged and after setting his own 200-plus mile marks in practice and even finishing as the highest ranked Indy 500 rookie, Malukas wondered himself how he could hold the top rookie to 46th place -year-old Johnson had lost.
As the drama faded from social media, Malukas returned to big runs for tiny Dale Coyne Racing.
He finished eighth in the second race of the Iowa doubleheader last month and is 16th overall, ahead of Indianapolis 500 winners Helio Castroneves and his teammate Takuma Sato, as well as the rest of the rookie class.
Newgarden heaped praise on Malukas after the race, saying Malukas, a Lithuanian-American from the Chicago area, could probably get a little more aggressive. Newgarden is three points adrift of Team Penske teammate Will Power with two races remaining, but he wasn’t worried about the potential risks of driving a rookie with victory at stake on Saturday night.
“When you see newcomers, I think you’re definitely a bit more cautious or cautious, or at least considering what you think you should be doing,” Newgarden said. “I would give Malukas a lot of respect. He was probably one of the cleanest freshmen I’ve ever seen. He was almost too respectful.”
Malukas admitted he both avoided Penske cars during practice and got a little starry-eyed when he faced off against Newgarden and McLaughlin.
His engineer radioed that Malukas was about to see the leaders of the race, and then he caught a glimpse of them sailing through Turns 1 and 2. It took him a moment to realize, “Oh my god, they’re Penskes ‘I’m walking behind Penskes right now. That’s crazy.'”
Rooted for Team Penske as a kid, Malukas says he avoided them when he made it to IndyCar this season: “Every time in practice, every time they passed me, I got them always passed. man,” he said.
And so he had to collect himself as he pursued the duo.
“I tried so hard not to get nervous. I mean, I was nervous, but I tried so hard not to get overwrought and do something stupid,” Malukas said. “It’s definitely intimidating to have two Penskes in front of you.”
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