Newgarden doesn’t feel pressure of home race this weekend in Nashville

NASHVILLE, Tenn — Josef Newgarden grew up in Hendersonville, Tennessee. It’s about 20 minutes north of Nissan Stadium, the home of the Tennessee Titans. That stadium is also the new home of the Music City Grand Prix which the 2nd edition of it will take place on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Newgarden hails 17 minutes away. He moved away after high school when he pursued an NTT INDYCAR Series path. It brought him back in 2019 as an established race car driver in said series.

After joining Team Penske in 2017, he moved to North Carolina to be closer to the team shop. A few years later, he moved back to Nashville. 2 years after that, his hometown was hosting a race.

MORE: Will course changes work for Sunday’s race, why restarts will make leader a sitting duck

Newgarden served as a big ambassador for the inaugural event last year. The problem was, he left little time to focus on his on track endeavors and it cost him. He started 12th after a crash in qualifying. He finished 10th.

This year, he enters after a health scare. Newgarden crashed while leading the 2nd race of a doubleheader weekend 12 days ago in Central Iowa. He had a hard lick. Afterwards, he passed out in the bus lot and while doing so, hit his head.

The 31-year old was transported to a Des Moines area hospital for further evaluation. Luckily, all tests came back clear so on Monday morning, he was released to come back to his Nashville home. It’s there where he’d rest. He’d stay off his phone letting wife Ashley do all the communication for him.

Newgarden was after one thing and one thing only – getting back into his race car. He felt fine. Tired and sore but generally fine. A test on Thursday up in Indianapolis would dictate whether he could race or not for last weekend’s Gallagher Grand Prix. He passed that test. It was an important one as he still strives to win this year’s championship. If he could do so, it would be his 3rd in the last six years. Missing a race wasn’t an option if it was up to him. Missing a race would theoretically dash his championship hopes.

Josef Newgarden practices his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet at Nashville this weekend. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

You can’t miss a race in this day and age and expect to take home some hardware after the season finale. So he didn’t miss it. He’d qualify and finish 5th.

That has him trailing teammate Will Power by 32 points entering Sunday’s Music City Grand Prix. It’s that plus how last year’s race weekend went to why they changed their approach to Sunday’s 80-lap event.

It worked. He was 5th in practice on Friday afternoon.

“It was a pretty good session for us,” Newgarden said after turning the days 5th fastest lap. “I thought we started off really strong. I felt like we brought something pretty different here this weekend, very different than what we would typically run. I felt like our starting pace was really good.”

As far as why he’d bring something different, Newgarden says that he felt like this was one of their weakest tracks last year and that they needed to do something drastic in coming back.

“We came here, after the year, if we were going to do something totally different anywhere, I thought it was Nashville,” said the hometown native. “I kind of felt like we needed to.

“I find it doesn’t fully relate to any other street course, I really do. I think it’s a very unique street course relative to the others. Probably from the outside it seems similar, but it’s a very tight track, very low speed, particularly the downtown section, you’re just not going very fast for a long period of time. I think what’s required on the car is different than a Long Beach or a St. Pete.

“When we were on the sim, I was like let’s come up with something different. We were struggling for speed last year. You could tell from the whole weekend we were behind, behind, behind. We tried a very different approach.

“Typically street courses will keep a similar car, change things for the characteristics of each track, but the global setup is different. Here it’s a 180.

“With that is probably going to come some development. Like I was talking about, the way we started the weekend when it was super low grip, it was excellent, the car was great. It started to grip up, we started losing some pace.

“I think we have to develop it a little bit but I think it’s got promise relative to where we were last year.”

Now, he’s in the realm to scoring a hometown victory. Team Penske has won 3 of the 4 street course races in 2022. Newgarden won the most prestigious one of all in Long Beach. Does he feel more pressure when coming back home now to pick up a victory in front of a lot of family and friends?

“I mean, not really,” he says. “My personal philosophy is to treat every event the same. It’s easier said than done. Obviously you feel magnitude differences between events. Whether it’s the Indy 500 or race one or the finale or a hometown race, I try and approach it the exact same way every single weekend.

“Yeah, for me it’s just business as usual. We’re going to do what we always do. I think when we keep that mindset, we have the most potential to have a clean weekend to maximize ourselves.”

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