Newgarden close again, but fails to win this year’s championship, his thoughts including why qualifying was the nail in his coffin

SALINAS, Calif — It was a hell of an effort out of Josef Newgarden in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. The Team Penske driver made a rare mistake in qualifying on Saturday afternoon in spinning in the corkscrew in Turn 8. It cost him the rest of the round and would relegate him to a 25th starting spot.

“It’s not over,” he quipped.

Deep down though, he knew that was likely the dagger. Newgarden knew his shots were long but his car was as fast as the chances. The No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet was a bullet. He just needed some luck.

“I think it’s a different day if you start on pole for sure,” Newgarden said on Sunday. “That gives us a very different picture. We’re going to run a different race and we’re going to run it from no deficit. We started this race last, so we started at a big deficit.

“You know, it’s hard to predict. If we didn’t have the deficit, I don’t know if we would have had enough to beat this guy today. I mean, he was stellar, and there’s no doubt about it, so I don’t want to marginalize what he did.

“But it’s a different day when you start first. We wouldn’t have had that deficit to make up.

“I don’t know how that would have turned out. I don’t know if it would have kind of changed the 12 car’s program. Really we win the pole, we win the day, all I need is for Power to finish fourth, and that seems pretty doable, right.

“Ultimately the spin was almost the nail in the coffin this weekend. It just was — we didn’t need that to happen. It was such a silly thing to happen, too. It wasn’t some grandiose problem. There’s one curb you don’t want to touch and I accidentally touched it, and it created a big issue.

“Yeah, hard to say how it would have come out if we had put the thing on pole yesterday, but I would have rather have done that and seen what happened than have to come from the back today.”

Newgarden started on the primary tires and would go all the way until Lap 22 on his opening stint. He then pit on Lap 35. Luckily for him, the lone caution of the day fell for Callum Ilott stalling at pit exit. He was now in the fight.

Qualifying is what cost him though because he was always on the opposite strategy because of it. He pit on Lap 60 to go on reds knowing that he still had to make 1 more stop. Will Power in front only had to make 1 more stop too but he was already too far behind.

While Newgarden caught him and even took over the lead for a brief moment when Power and race leader Alex Palou pit on back-to-back laps, it just wasn’t enough to make up enough ground to close the 21 point gap to Power that he faced entering the day.

Newgarden came from 25th to finish 2nd which is nothing short of amazing. It just didn’t end up in a championship with him finishing 16 points behind in 2nd.

“Well, we tried today for sure. We gave our best, as we always do,” said Newgarden. “Alex (Palou) was tough to catch today. I think he just was incredible, particularly on the last couple stints. He did a really amazing job. It was going to be hard to get to him.

“I really wanted to — we got all the way to second, and I’m like, we just need one more spot, but he seemed a little out of reach today. So tremendous job by them.

“Yeah, that was everything I had today. I think we were going to be — we were short ultimately to Alex, no doubt. We’re going to have to reassess and figure out how we make ourselves a little bit better to the deficit that we had to Alex in those last couple stints. I’ve got some ideas already, and I think if we were going to run this race again, I already know what we’d try, and if we start up further then that changes the game, too. I’m hopeful for another shot.

“As far as what we put together today, that was everything we had, no doubt.

“Happy we were able to fight back to where we did. It was a tough day, and we knew we had to fight. Ultimately we’ve come up short in this championship. We’ve got to be in a different position next year and fight a lot harder so that we can hopefully be in a much more favorable position coming into this weekend, and I believe we can do that.

“It’s been a really tough year. It’s been good in a lot of ways, but it’s also been really negative in a lot of others.

“I’m excited for a reset, excited to come back next year, and I know we’ve got the team to do the job.”

Josef Newgarden Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

It’s his 6th straight top 5 finish in the NTT INDYCAR Series final standings on Sunday. 4 of which have now been in the top 2. However, only 2 of them are championships. Newgarden had his sights set on his 3rd career title on Sunday in Laguna Seca but unfortunately he came up just a little bit short of the grand prize in the 2022 season finale.

While he had the most wins during the course of the 17 race season, he struggled to put a complete season together. The 31-year old had as many wins (5) as he had finishes of 13th or worse (5). That’s where this title was lost.

“You know, for sure we just needed to have a more consistent season,” Newgarden noted. “There’s no doubt. I think that the peak performance was there all year. We just didn’t have the consistency. That ultimately is what put us in an unfavorable position when we came here.

“If we can clean that up, I have no doubt we can challenge for the championship again next year.”

He had 2 wins in the first 3 races of the year but if you take a step back and include the opening 6 races, he had 4 results of 13th or worse too. He gave up too much too early and sat 5th in points at that time.

Yes, he had 9 top 10’s, 6 of which in the top 6, in the final 11 races, but it was too little too late.

Sounds a lot like his past years too.

“I think I’m overwhelmingly proud of our team,” Newgarden said. “We came up short in the 2 car, but at the end of the day, the team excelled tremendously this year. Outside of Indianapolis, I don’t think there’s a team that was in touching distance to Team Penske.

“I’m filled with a lot of pride because I think the world of everybody on this team, not just the 2 car, but everyone on the 12, everyone on the 3. We’re all very close.

“I’m sad for the 2 car crew, but I’m also elated for the 12 car crew because there’s a lot of really good people there, and really a win for one car is a win for all of us.

“Obviously we’re all competitive, and we want to personally be the winners, but when we win as a team, it is big for everybody. I’m filled with a lot of pride.

“But I’m also filled with a little bit of a relief. I’m kind of happy to come into this off-season reset, recharge, and then figure out a way to just hit everybody harder next year, and I know we can do that.

“The other overwhelming positive in my mind is I know we can do better than this year. I just know we can. When we put it together, I’m just telling you, just watch out, because when we put it together, it’s going to be big.”

Last year as an example, no one has as many top 10 finishes (13) as Newgarden. This year, no one has as many wins (5). Where’s the sweet spot that he’s been lacking if he doesn’t take this year’s title on Sunday?

Unfortunately, it’s the lack of consistent podiums is what proved to be the difference between Newgarden and at least another title or two since 2017.

Last year, he had 6 podiums. Alex Palou had 8. Palou also had 10 top 5’s in comparison to Newgarden’s 8.

This year, his only podiums are his race wins and the one he had on Sunday. He does have 8 top 5’s and 12 top 10’s. It’s those 5 finishes of 13th or worse that are costing him.

So he look at the ones that got away or focus forward?

Josef Newgarden Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

In the first 10 races of the season last year, he had nine top 10 qualifying efforts including three straight poles heading into the break. In the five races leading into the season finale weekend, he was 12th or worse in qualifying in four of them.

That coupled with some key moments earlier in the season put him 38 points behind in the end. If you take Barber and Road America back, Newgarden may be the one hoisting the trophy last season instead.

Newgarden, crashed on the opening lap at Barber. Palou won that day. 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. Palou won that race too.

Take Barber, Road America and Belle Isle out, Newgarden likely wins last years title.

He still had a pair of wins and three runner-ups in races that did go his way.

This sounds very similar to the year prior as well.

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 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 117 points down, going into Race 2 of the 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 that 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.

This year came down to more pace on the races that he didn’t win but here he is again.

“Look, if I can figure out how to predict yellows, that would be a magical find in the off-season,” he says. T”hat’s the number one thing I want to figure out is how do you predict these things.

“If we had that figured out, this year would be very different.

“A lot of times that’s how it goes. It’s INDYCAR racing. They’re hard to predict. Things go your way one moment and they go against you the next, and you just kind of ride the waves. But some years in particular just seem to be bad stretches, and this year was most taxing because of the roller coaster. It was one weekend we’d be winning the race, next weekend it was going sideways for one reason or another. I wouldn’t put any negative or problem on anyone within the team. I don’t think we’re going to go into the off-season and say, hey, we’ve got to change a bunch of stuff. Timing-wise it was just a really tough year timing-wise, so mentally it was a little bit of a drain because the more success you find, the more you demand perfection from each race, so the more taxing it is when it’s not going correct.

“But I don’t think it’s anything that we could predict or really alter. I think we just need a little better timing here.

“But everyone did their job this season. I’m really proud of everybody. It’s not like we need a lot of changes. I think we called good races. We pitted the car well. It’s reliable, as reliable as you can expect. There’s always one or two things that are going to happen, but I think we have really reliable cars, so I’m not going to be demanding a lot of changes. It’s just need a little bit of momentum to roll our way consistently next year.”

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