There’s no doubt about it, Josef Newgarden has been among the best NTT INDYCAR Series drivers since he’s teamed up with Team Penske back for the 2017 season. This weekend now, the Tennessee native is hoping to score his 3rd championship in the 6 years that he’s been a Penske driver too.
Could he end up being the top driver to ever walk through those Penske perfect doors?
Now in his sixth season now with Penske, Newgarden has amassed 22 wins, 36 podiums, 15 poles and has led 2,697 laps. By comparison, in five seasons with Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden scored three wins, 10 podiums, won just one pole and led 679 laps.
“I mean, I forget about my job sometimes,” Newgarden said. “I get so focused on the day-to-day, just the process of I want to be the best in any facet, whether it’s the way I examine data, the way I work with the team, my fitness regimen. I get lost in that perfection. I forget how cool this has been.
“I’ve been doing this for over 11 years now. I never as a kid thought I’d be doing this. I didn’t. I really didn’t. I loved racing carts. I met a lot of friends in motorsports. Now to reflect at times, to see the opportunity I’ve had, it’s been a real privilege and pleasure.
“I get to work with the best, I really do. I believe that. Team Penske is absolutely the pinnacle. We’ve got a lot of people there. I’ve worked with a lot of them different years, different people. They’re all tremendous.
“Yeah, to be here 11 years on still has been a real honor for me.”
This weekend however, he comes into the season finale without needing to have a perfect weekend mindset like he’s had to do the last 2 years. He was too far out to realistically stave a fight in St. Pete in 2020 and again last year on the streets of Long Beach in trailing by 38 points. This time that gap is 20.
It to why he won both races the last 2 years but didn’t win either championship in the process.
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. He does have 7 top 5’s and 11 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?
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?
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.
Still, a 3rd title if he can win one would put him in a rare category as only the 13th human in the history of this planet of ours to win 3 or more INDYCAR championships. Another one would even him with Sebastien Bourdais and Mario Andretti at 4. Only Scott Dixon’s 6 and AJ Foyt’s 7 would be more.
At the very least, he has finished 1st or 2nd in points in 3 of his 5 years at Penske and aiming for a 4th in 6 years. He was 3rd and 5th in the other two.