American Penske driver Josef Newgarden celebrates his victory in the 107th Indianapolis 500

Los Angeles (AFP) - Josef Newgarden won the 107th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, diving past Marcus Ericsson in the dramatic last sprint of a race that saw heavy crashes bring out three late red flags.

The American Penske Racing driver, a two-time IndyCar series champion, won the showpiece event for the first time as he denied Ericsson a repeat. American Santino Ferrucci was third.

“Everyone kept asking me why I haven’t won this race,” an emotional Newgarden said. “They look at you like a failure if you don’t win it. I wanted to win it so bad.”

He had to survive a chaotic final 14 laps that saw the race halted three times before he finally took the checkered flag.

American Kyle Kirkwood escaped serious injury in a crash that had his AJ Foyt Racing car skidding upside down against the wall with sparks flying and brought out the red flag with 14 laps remaining.

“All I know is I was up in the fence, which is never a good thing in IndyCar,” said Kirkwood, whose on-board camera showed a remarkable in-cockpit angle on his slide.

Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist had hit the wall and careened across the track and Kirkwood was unable to avoid contact, but, after his frightening ride, emergency workers righted the car and helped him climb out.

“Thank God these cars are so safe,” he said. “I saw sparks flying everywhere. That’s the scary part. You’re upside-down and you’re kind of stuck at that point.”

Miraculously, the tire that went flying over the catch-fencing missed the grandstand, landing in a parking lot with no reported injuries.

Shortly after the restart, Mexico’s Pato O’Ward lost control as he challenged to regain the lead and crashed into the wall. Augustin Canapino and Simon Pagenaud were caught up in the aftermath, bringing out another red flag with six laps remaining.

O’Ward had just been overtaken by Newgarden for the lead and was under Ericsson entering turn two when he spun.

“I was way too nice, I got onto the apron to give (Ericsson) room and I got squeezed,” O’Ward said. “I’ll remember that one.”

A chaotic restart saw five cars caught up in a mid-pack crash that brought out first the yellow and then the red flag.

Ericsson was in front when the caution came out, but he couldn’t hold off Newgarden after the green flag flew to set off the final shootout.

“I just thought it was a very unfair and dangerous end to the race,” Ericsson said of restarting on cold tires with just two laps remaining.

“Congratulations to Josef, he’s a worthy champion, but I’m very disappointed with the way it ended.”

- Newgarden locked in -

Newgarden, who gave Penske a record-extending 19th Indy 500 victory, was weeping before he climbed out of his car to kiss the yard of bricks at the finish line.

“I was trying to stay locked in,” he said. “I was emotional the whole last 10 laps because I knew we were in position to fight for the win.”

The chaotic late stages were a contrast to a smooth start on the 2.5-mile (4km) oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Chip Ganassi’s Alex Palou and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay started one-two on the grid and patiently traded the lead through the first quarter of the race.

After the second round of pit stops, Felix Rosenqvist had filtered to the front ahead of Arrow McLaren teammate O’Ward and that’s where they stood when rookie Sting Ray Robb brought out the first caution of the race on lap 93 – slamming his Dale Coyne Racing car into the outside wall and sliding sideways to a stop in the middle of the track.

The caution brought the leaders swarming into the pits and VeeKay got loose pulling out of his stall, veered left and slammed into the exiting Palou – who was left to claw back from 28th place to finish fourth.

It was just one of the scary pit-lane incidents of the day, which also included Katherine Legge getting sideways as she tried to exit, a collision between Andretti teammates Colton Herta and Romain Grosjean and a tire getting loose during one of Ferrucci’s stops.