LONG BEACH, Calif — Josef Newgarden doesn’t think he belongs in this press conference on Thursday. The one for the only championship eligible drivers left in the NTT INDYCAR Series season. There’s three of them. He’s one.
While he’s naturally honored to be here, he also feels like a Hail Mary is needed for win to take home a third Astor Cup championship trophy and add it to his office with the other two.
“I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t think I was going to get any questions during this press conference, so I’m happy to answer them, though, and speak about these fantastically talented guys,” he said on Thursday afternoon in Long Beach. “This is really the fight right here without a doubt. If an act of God happens and somehow we win this thing, great.
“But these two (Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward)– I don’t want to call them youngsters because I’m not that much older than them. I feel like I’m in the weird middle position right now in the championship where I’m not the old guy but I’m not the young guy. It’s fun competing against these two because this championship you want to compete against the best from around the world, and to see what Pato is doing with the contingent from México and to see how invigorated Spain is becoming and his fellow countrymen from Alex is just what this championship is about. You want the best from around the world competing and trying to showcase their abilities.
“I’m excited to compete against them. I’m disappointed we’re not in a better position. I wish this was more of a true fight here for this final round and we could be closer, but we fought hard and I think we fought against the best this year. Whoever comes out on top I think is a very deserving winner between those guys.”
Newgarden was that young driver once. In fact, the feat that he’s even sitting here is a testament to his past owners.
See, Newgarden owes a lot of gratitude towards Sarah Fisher, Wink Harkman and Ed Carpenter. In a day and age of racing to where the leashes grow shorter by the year and the value of a driver is more about what kind of paycheck he can bring rather than command, the fact that the Tennessee native is in the position that he’s in is due to the patience of those three members.
In 2012, Fisher and Hartman took a chance on this young kid coming off of an Indy Lights championship the season before. In 14 races, he had no top 10’s and finished 23rd in points. They’d bring him back still a year later and Newgarden showed then his promise. A runner-up in Baltimore, four top fives overall and seven top 10’s in 19 races run proved that the kid has the talent and speed to compete in this series. All he needed was a shot, time to learn and someone backing him.
They gave him that for a third year in 2014 and he had a similar season. A runner-up this time in Iowa, two top fives and seven top 10’s propelled him from 23rd to 14th to 13th in points in three seasons.
But, things changed between 2014 and 2015. Fisher, Hartman and Carpenter merged and they decided to keep Newgarden around. Four races into the 2015 season, Newgarden won. He’d win again that year in Toronto to end up scoring two wins, two runner-ups, five top fives and nine top 10’s in 16 races. He’d finish a career best seven in points.
When Fisher and Hartman stepped aside for 2016, Carpenter saw Newgarden’s talent and kept him around. At this point, everyone was wondering what this American could do with a team like Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. Newgarden, felt he owed it to come back to Carpenter for them taking their chance on him and it paid off again.
2016 came to a tune of another win, four total podiums, six top fives and 11 top 10’s. He qualified on the front row at Indy and finished fourth in points. His Iowa drive in which he dominated the race by nearly leading all 300 laps and doing so with a broken clavicle, caught Roger Penske’s attention and the rest was history.
For 2017, Newgarden was a Penske driver. Could he live up to what he did before?
Boy has he ever.
He won four races and the championship in his first season with Penske. He was champion again in 2019. He was second last year. Now, he has a shot at his third championship in just his fifth season with Penske.
Does this exceed his expectations of what he expected when he joined this storied organization?
From 2012 though 2016, he competed in 83 races. He won three times, had 10 podiums, 17 top fives, 34 top 10’s and 679 laps led.
From 2017 through now with Penske, he’s competed in 80 races. He’s won 17 times, had 31 podiums, 44 top fives, 65 top 10’s and 2,197 laps led.
I’d say it paid off.
He’s won four races in 3 of his 5 seasons at Penske and if he could win on Sunday, it would put him one victory shy of four in 2021. He also won three times in 2018 too.
Newgarden, has finished first or second in points in 3 of his previous 4 years with Penske, so 4-for-5 would be an astonishing start with the biggest team in the sport too. He’s currently 13 points behind second at the moment.
The thing is, if situations went a little differently at the start of each of the last two seasons, one could wonder if this would be his fourth title in five years.
See, last year Scott Dixon won each of the first three races run and had a top two result in four of the first five overall. In fact, once Dixon won the Aug. 29 race at the World Wide Technology Raceway a year ago and it was his sixth top two in the opening eight races of the season. With a race on that same track a day later and six overall races left, he appeared to be untouchable.
Newgarden, found himself over 100 points down, 117 back to be exact going into Race 2 of the St. Louis race weekend last season. He stormed all the way back and nearly won the title.
How? How does one make up 117 points in six races?
Speed and talent is how and it left Newgarden wondering if he had started better, what if?
In a six race span to end the season, Newgarden had five top four finishes — four of those in the top two. Dixon, only had one podium and two top fives.
But, it was that string of races to start the year to what was the deciding factor in this. If cautions fell differently, Newgarden may have been the champion for 2020 after all.
It happened in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on July 4 a year ago. He had a podium caliber kind of car but the caution for Oliver Askew’s crash in the middle of a pit sequence wasn’t needed. He’d finish seventh as a result. It happened again in Race 1 at Iowa. He finished fifth. It happened in Race 1 at World Wide Technology Raceway too. He’d finish 12th.
In those three races, Scott Dixon came home first, second, first respectively. The points difference between just those two in those three combined races?
Newgarden entered the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader last year with a 72 point gap.
That alone proves that the cautions have hurt him. Say Dixon and he both finish in the top five of those races, the gap would have been far less than 72. It’s more like 15 or less.
When cautions stayed out of Newgarden’s way, he was the better driver with the better car.
Look now at this season.
He crashed on the opening lap at Barber. He was on the wrong end of a caution in Belle Isle which cost his strategy after leading the first 67 laps of the 70 lap race. He had a mechanical failure while leading on the late restart with 2 to go in Road America. He had led 32 laps of 55 that day. He should have two more wins to his credit right now and would likely be the one leading the standings instead.
He’s still had a pair of wins and three runner-ups in races that did go his way. Now, it’s down to the wire again this weekend in Sunny California.
“You know, I think it’s a very respectful championship when you look at it, which is I think the beauty in INDYCAR racing. You have such a fierce environment where you have the best of the best in my opinion from around the world that want to compete every weekend, want to be the best and be on top. But we do it in such a respectful way. You have great drivers that I think they push to the limit, but they don’t try and go over it, certainly not purposely.
“Mind games are part of that. Obviously we’re going to try and — I always try and project my strengths, but at the same time I always want to win fairly.
“I think what I’m trying to get at, though, is why you don’t see a lot of that mess in our series is just because it’s a really respectful group of people that are here to work hard and let that really shine through at the end of the day. The hardest working group and the group that gets it right is the group that’s going to be victorious, and that’s what we all focus on. It’s a really pleasant environment to be in. You can see that as evidence with Romain.
“It’s one thing I love about this championship and being a part of it. It’s a real pleasure.”
He’s never won at Long Beach before but does have six top two finishes in his last 10 street course starts overall.
Newgarden’s finishes on street courses since the start of the 2019 season?
1st, 2nd, 1st, 19th, 4th, 1st, 2nd, 10th, 2nd and 10th respectively. While we’ve had parity on these tracks, he’s the only constant up front. He needs it again this weekend with a little luck too.