INDIANAPOLIS — Josef Newgarden’s Team Penske teammate (Will Power) hoisted the Astor Cup championship trophy in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES a year ago. Newgarden, while happy for Will Power, was also seething mad at himself for what was an all too inconsistent season.
This was the third straight year he finished a bridesmaid in the championship standings and coming into the 2023 season, he felt, no more.
“How are we going to build a bigger gap where that’s not even possible? I don’t even want to be messing with it at the end of the year,” said the two-time series champion at Media Day back in February. “In an ideal world, if we get to the end of a season where we don’t have to mess with the gap, if we can just get that out of the way, that would be ideal. That’s where my mindset is at, how do we get to that place where it’s not even on the table, it’s just done.
“I think I’m not arrogant enough to believe that that’s easy. It seems near impossible these days to do that. I think that’s valid. It’s very difficult to do that. I understand that. But I still want to find a way where we can get to a place where we don’t have to mess with it.”
When pressed about if he truly meant that, he doubled down on his remark.
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“It’s not easy. It’s possible. I do not think that will be easy whatsoever, but we need to figure out how to do that,” he said.
The reason for that feeling is that Newgarden is sick and tired of coming away runner-up in points.
“Yeah, I mean, it gnaws at me for sure,” he said. “It’s annoying, there’s no doubt. How could you not be frustrated by it, right? I think it’s normal, very frustrating. I try and take the frustration and just put it into motivation.”
That frustration has been weighing on Newgarden since he left Monterey last September. He was coming into 2023 with a vengeance. Even though the championship came down to the final race for 17 consecutive years now, Newgarden was aiming to put that streak to an end this season.
The 32-year-old is as competitive as they come and he’s pissed to be so close yet so far away from a dynasty here.
Last season was his 7th straight top 5 finish in the NTT INDYCAR Series final standings. 5 of which have now been in the top 2 including an astounding four straight years. However, only twice has he won a championship in this span and over the last four years, three straight have seen him come home bridesmaid at seasons end.
Last year was even more difficult to grasp.
While he had the most wins during the course of the 17-race season, he struggled to put a complete season together. Newgarden 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 that day. “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.”
We’re at next year and so far, 2023 looks a lot like 2022. He won at Texas again. However, that’s his only top five finish in four starts. He had smoke billowing from his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet at the end of the season opener in St. Pete. He’d finish 17th as a result. In Barber, he had damage from early race contact and tried to push through it. He’d fade to 15th. In Long Beach, the second caution of the race ruined his strategy. He went from second early to fuel saving late and had to settle for ninth.
“You know, I think it’s hard to grade it,” Newgarden told me on how he’d grade his season so far. “I think the potential is enormous. I’d say that I think our team’s potential has never been better. We’ve not realized the potential, that’s for sure. You know, we’ve, we’ve realized that one out of five races when I think we could have you know, been in the fight for the win. Three out of five, if we would have done three out of the five and we’d been a more representative position. But I think the potential is, is massive. That gives me a ton of confidence.”
Races like those earlier are going to be the reason he doesn’t have this championship clinched before we get to Laguna Seca. It may be the reason he’s playing chaser instead of being chased.
Newgarden comes to IMS looking for his first Indy 500 triumph. He’s 0-for-11.