Newgarden further staking claim as potential 1 of INDYCAR’s greats

LONG BEACH, Calif — Josef Newgarden finally has his crown jewel. The Team Penske driver entered this season 0-for-10 in terms of Indianapolis 500 triumphs to go along with being 0-for-9 on the streets of Long Beach. On Sunday, he crossed one of the two off of his list. Newgarden, inherited the lead after his final pit stop when he exited pit lane just barely ahead of defending NTT INDYCAR Series champion, Alex Palou, and despite two late restarts, held off he and Romain Grosjean for his 22nd career victory but first in what is considered a crown jewel on the calendar.

“It’s a huge pleasure to finally be able to win around this place,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for 11 years. I remember my first race here in 2011 I was running in Indy Lights and I stuck the car in the fence with about two to go in Turn 8, and I just — I was leading and literally two to go, so I’ve never had a victory here, so it’s pretty special to finally get one. Yeah, just really, really pleased for the team, the 2 car.”

The question now is, just how far can Newgarden go? His 22 wins tie him with Tony Bettenhausen and Emerson Fittipaldi for 20th all-time. 19 of those 22 wins have come in the last 81 starts. He’s averaging 3 wins per season since he’s joined Team Penske in 2017 and already has 2 in the first 3 races of the 2022 season.

If he continues this up, then Newgarden will be knocking down the door of the top 10 of the all-time wins list (31) in the next three years. That would put him at the age of 34.

While I doubt he catches AJ Foyt’s all-time mark of 67, is Mario Andretti’s 52 possible? That’s 30 more wins needed. It may be hard in this era of INDYCAR racing.

The thing is, out of his 27 career victories now if you count Indy Lights (22 in IndyCar, 5 in Indy Lights), he’s only went back-to-back in terms of trips to victory lane just once prior to this string when he won at Toronto and Mid-Ohio in back-to-back races during the 2017 season.

Now, he’s done it again.

“I think you said it. Honestly, it’s the parity,” he told me when I asked him just this week on why it’s so difficult to go back-to-back. “I don’t know another racing championship in the world that has the parity that INDYCAR does. Obviously, I’m biased being a part of it, seeing how the paddock functions.

“When I first got into the series in 2012, that was not as present. It was getting better from the previous years, certainly from the ’01 to 2011 era. There was a jump forward right away when I started in 2012, but from that point all the way until now it’s just gotten tighter and tighter.

“The tolerances are really small as far as where you can find an edge performance-wise on your competitors. All the teams have raised the levels and their understanding of the car is pretty uniform across the board when you look at the series.

“So it’s just so difficult to get a tiny edge on the competition. Doesn’t matter what time you’re with, what driver you are. I think that’s the ultimate reason why it’s so hard to go week after week and you secure a win. I mean, any little thing can ruin your weekend now, or just a small hiccup can take victory away from you. It’s just incredibly difficult to rattle off wins.

“I think nowadays, the gold standard is kind of three or four wins. It’s still possible someone could win more races than that, but it’s just extremely difficult with how much parity there is.”

Still, we know more are to come. This was his 8th straight season with at least one victory. That’s the fifth most all-time. He led 32 laps on Sunday which moves his career total to 2,889 laps led which moves him by Dan Wheldon (2,865) and Bettenhausen (2,856). Rodger Ward is next up at 2,971. He has 43 podiums which is 7 shy of 20th all-time. I don’t see him touching Scott Dixon’s mark of 119 as he sits now, but just how far can he move up?

His 64 top fives are now tied with Danny Sullivan, Gil De Ferran and Graham Rahal for 23rd all-time. He’s done so in only 167 starts.

The reason why he may not reach the levels of an Andretti, Foyt or even Dixon is due to his slower start.

Newgarden could go down as one of the best Indy Car drivers there ever was – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

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 and now currently leading the points after 3 races.

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 84 races. He’s won 19 times, had 34 podiums, 47 top fives, 68 top 10’s and 2,250 laps led.

I’d say it paid off.

He could go down as one of the best open wheel drivers ever for the Captain. Will Power has the most wins for a Penske Indy Car driver with 37. Helio Castroneves is next with 30. Then it’s Rick Mears 29 and Newgarden 19.

In terms of oval wins for Penske, Mears is tops with 22. Castroneves is next at 17. Both Bobby Unser and Power have 9 while Newgarden is tied with Sam Hornish Jr. with 8. For road/street course triumphs, Power has the most with 28 while Castroneves 13 and Newgaren 11 are the only other ones in double digits.

He’s done this in just over 5 years. Imagine what the next 5 years could look like.

The thing is, if situations went a little differently at the start of each of the last two seasons prior, one could wonder if this would be his fifth title in six years.

See, in 2020, 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 that year, 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 2020 St. Louis race weekend. 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?

68.

Newgarden entered the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader in 2020 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 last 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.

Now, he’s turning those days into wins. Watch out.

Newgarden is just one step away from winning the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge with his victory. The challenge offered by the industrial staffing giant is a bonus of $1 million to be awarded to the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver who can win on all three unique styles of tracks – street circuits, road courses and ovals – this season. The reward, if earned, will be divided, with $500,000 shared by the driver and his team and $500,000 presented to their chosen charity.

Newgarden already has won this season on an oval (Texas Motor Speedway) and a street circuit (Long Beach). His first opportunity for a road course victory comes at the next event, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on May 1 at Barber Motorsports Park, where he has three career INDYCAR SERIES victories (2015, 2017, 2018). PeopleReady is offering an additional $10,000 to the winner of every race this season, also to be split with their selected charity. Newgarden is splitting his award from today’s race with SeriousFun Childrens Network and Wags & Walks Nashville.

“It makes me feel like a real INDYCAR driver, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think that’s what makes our sport great. We talk about it a lot, but it’s the truth. The thing that sets INDYCAR apart is the diversity of the racing. We love having the best of the best from around the world and having to compete on all types of tracks and having to master all disciplines. If you can’t master all disciplines, then it’s so difficult to be successful in this sport.

“I just love that INDYCAR drivers have to be good at all those skill sets, so when we’re able to do that, it gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Next up is that last track remaining. He’s a three-time winner at Barber too.

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