For Josef Newgarden, year three is chance to enter IndyCar’s elite

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If history is any indication, Josef Newgarden has the prodigious talent to enter an elite group of drivers in his third year of the IndyCar Series.

Current drivers that won their first race in their third season of competition, in the CART, Champ Car, IRL or IndyCar formats include: Helio Castroneves (CART, 2000), Will Power (Champ Car, 2007), Ryan Briscoe (IndyCar, 2008), James Hinchcliffe (IndyCar, 2013), Charlie Kimball (IndyCar, 2013) and Simon Pagenaud (IndyCar, 2013).

Others, such as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson, among others, have won earlier.

But their circumstances are different to the ones Newgarden faces, as the 23-year-old Nashville native prepares for his “junior year” in IndyCar.

Newgarden has had to learn and develop without the aid of a full-time teammate at the fledgling but growing Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing organization.

As a young driver, the expertise offered by a veteran could be beneficial, but as Newgarden explained, not having one can make you stronger.

“It would be optimal to have a teammate with more resources,” he admitted in an interview with MotorSportsTalk last week. “But working with what you have, and making the most of it can be very rewarding in its own right. Doing well as a single-car team builds confidence for all of us.”

As a result, he’s going through his first round of engine development work this offseason. Honda shifts from a single turbo to a twin-turbo engine specification, which essentially changes how the power is delivered.

While Newgarden said the team has had “really good success” figuring out the new challenge, the challenge that has presented itself from a personnel standpoint has been twofold.

The team lost engineer Nathan O’Rourke to Andretti Autosport, with Jeremy Milless now filling that role. Another team member, Mike O’Gara, has also departed the organization to run Chip Ganassi’s sports car team in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

“It’s been an adjustment period; a real tough offseason, with a lot of shuffling. But I think we’ve responded the best we can,” Newgarden said. “We have most of our guys still the same. This team never quits, and honestly I think we’ll be ready to go.”

Newgarden’s two seasons have featured some brief highs, but more lows in total. And that’s not for anything that’s been done wrong, but more down to either poor luck or poor pace.

Case in point: Newgarden was often quick in 2012, but he rarely had any results to show for it (not a single top-10 finish; ended 23rd in points) and dealt with frequent mechanical maladies. He also missed the Baltimore race after breaking his finger in a collision with Bourdais at Sonoma.

In 2013, the results improved (four top-five, seven top-10 finishes, jumped to 14th in points) but the qualifying fell off. Newgarden’s qualifying average of 17.5 was better than only three other full-season drivers: Ed Carpenter, Graham Rahal and Sebastian Saavedra.

“For year three, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on being quicker,” he said. “We did better at finishing races, and putting results together. But we lacked outright performance and speed. We’re trying to understand and gain consistency, and also get more ultimate speed out of it. That’s where we will make more gains.”

Are wins – as mentioned in the lede – the ultimate goal? Not as much as translating that hoped-for consistency into a top-10 points finish, which is a lofty goal considering the mighty Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams will field half (11 of 22) of the projected full-season entries.

“A realistic goal for us is top-10 in the championship, and to be a top-10 car at the end of the year,” Newgarden said. “Whether wins come or not is neither here or there. We have to be more consistent, and put results together. I think we’re capable.”

Newgarden starred on street courses in particular in 2013. He nearly won at Brazil but eventually faded to fifth, while at Baltimore, Newgarden attacked the infamous Pratt St. chicane like no other en route to second, an elusive but popular maiden podium finish (and one that featured a kitten named Simba, because Internet).

But he doesn’t want to be known as a one-trick pony, especially given that those two circuits are absent from the 2014 IndyCar schedule.

“I really think I can make it work on other courses,” he said. “Baltimore and Brazil people thought were my two best tracks. But I’m excited for St. Pete, Long Beach and Barber to kick off the year; we’ve worked harder on the package. I think we’ll have good results.”

What Newgarden is always good at – beyond his on-track development – is his candor, relationship with the media and occasionally self-deprecating sense of humor.

He’s grown his hair out this winter, and admits his love for Chipotle “still stands as strong as ever” despite “inroads made from Moe’s.”

But back to business, Newgarden is in a contract year, with 2014 marking the third of his initial three-year contract with SFHR. He could potentially play himself into a bigger seat for 2015; for now at least, he doesn’t want that to distract from the focus of continued improvement.

“It’s been a challenging road; it’s been tough learning the ropes,” he admitted. “But I’m very excited about year three. There’s so much I’ve learned in two years, being in the mix.

“What I need to do is apply the learning the last two years, and make that big step forward. We’ve built this team from essentially the ground up, improved and improved with each race, and I have with them. Hopefully that’s the recipe. There’s not pressure for year three, but more excitement from more experience.”

For IndyCar’s sake, as Newgarden is one of only two Americans 25 or younger (Graham Rahal is the other, at 25), taking that next step to enter potential superstar status will be a benefit to all of driver, team and series.

Penske drivers lament missed victory at Road America (VIDEO)

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Team Penske dominated the entire Kohler Grand Prix weekend at Road America, twice going 1-2-3-4 over the three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday and then doing the same in qualifying, with Helio Castroneves taking pole from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud.

However, race day represented a missed opportunity. Though Castroneves led early, it was Newgarden who emerged as their best hope for victory following a spectacular outside pass on Castroneves entering turn 1 on lap 19. That put Newgarden in the lead, and he seemed to be in full control.

Still, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon had been stalking the Penske foursome all race long, and sat behind Newgarden in second for a lap 30 restart. With Newgarden on primary blacks and Dixon on alternate reds, Newgarden was somewhat of a sitting duck, and Dixon muscled his way into the lead with an equally spectacular outside pass in turn 1, with Newgarden briefly falling to third behind teammate Castroneves.

Josef Newgarden led several laps, but could not find his way around Dixon for the win. Photo: IndyCar

Although Newgarden regrouped, overtook Castroneves during the final pit stop sequence, and closed to within a second following a restart with seven laps remaining, he was never close enough to make a move for the win.

Even though the Team Penske drivers all finished in the top five, going 2-3-4-5 with Newgarden leading Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power, missing out on victory was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car,” Newgarden revealed in the post-race press conference.

He added that an ill-timed lap 28 caution for a spinning Takuma Sato ultimately put paid his chances of victory. “The caution didn’t fall our way. You can’t predict that stuff. It hurts when it comes at the wrong time. That’s pretty much what happened today. With (Tim Cindric calling the strategy), I feel confident with all our decisions, everything those guys do on the pit box. Things just didn’t fall our way today.”

For Castroneves, a slight error before his final pit stop saw him pit earlier than the team wanted, due to an alarm that went off in the cockpit. However, as he explained to NBCSN’s Marty Snider, it was of little consequence to the outcome of the race.

“We mentioned in the debrief that if in turn 14, the blue lights come on, you are to come right away. So I came in. I am sure they had a little buffer, and they knew what exactly was going on. (Race engineer Jonathan Diuguid) said keep going but I couldn’t quite understand him. But at the end of the day it didn’t cost us anything in terms of a win or second place.”

Still, the strong results see Pagenaud and Castroneves sit second and third in the championship, while Newgarden and Power sit fifth and sixth, respectively.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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One of the crazier, most eventful Formula 1 races in recent memory took place at the Baku City Circuit today in Azerbajian.

That makes it a challenge to recap but it’s something NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, along with producer Jason Swales, attempt to do in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

You can see it below. Thursday’s pre-race edition is linked here. A full roundup of Sunday videos from Baku is linked here.

 

Bottas gives everything in Baku fightback from a lap down to P2

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Valtteri Bottas says he “gave it absolutely everything” after falling a lap down and running last early on in Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Baku before fighting back to finish second for Mercedes.

Bottas qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, but dropped back after contact with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2 on the opening lap, sustaining a puncture.

Bottas fell a lap down on the field immediately, but was waved past and able to get back onto the lead lap during the first safety car period.

From there, Bottas produced a stunning fightback, dodging the minefield of incidents through the race to eventually cross the line second after a drag race to the checkered flag with Williams’ Lance Stroll.

“Today was a crazy race, especially for me. I had a puncture on the first lap after the contact with Kimi on Lap 1,” Bottas said.

“I was a lap down, then had to overtake the field under the Safety Car. The second Safety Car after that really helped me out and, step by step, I moved forward from there.

“My main goal today was to fight for the win but that went out of the window after the first lap. I was actually last at one point, but I got my head down, gave it absolutely everything and tried to get the absolute maximum out of every single corner.

“We didn’t quite manage to win but P2 from where we were is a great feeling. Importantly for the team, we scored more points in the fight with Ferrari and I got some good points for myself as well.”

Bottas ultimately finished as Mercedes’ lead driver following Lewis Hamilton’s second pit stop when his headrest came loose, resigning the Briton to fifth place at the checkered flag.

F1: Azerbaijan Grand Prix race videos on NBCSN (VIDEO)

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Videos from today’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix at the Baku City Circuit from NBCSN are linked below.

Daniel Ricciardo won a chaotic, crazy, bizarre race for his first victory of the season.

With a mix of post-race interviews and in-race highlights, there was a lot to digest. The post-race edition of Paddock Pass will also attempt to recap it all.

POST-RACE INTERVIEWS/FEATURES

Lewis Hamilton

Sebastian Vettel

Sergio Perez

Lance Stroll’s podium “shoey” with Daniel Ricciardo

Daniel Ricciardo’s “shoey” tradition

IN-RACE HIGHLIGHTS

Bottas, Raikkonen tag each other at start of race

Verstappen tries to force Perez into errors at Azerbaijan GP

Verstappen forced to retire in Azerbaijan GP

Fernando Alonso calls for a red flag due to debris

Vettel hits Hamilton in crazy restart

Repercussions possible for Vettel and Hamilton after contact

Ricciardo slings his way to third

Sebastian Vettel relinquishes lead due to penalty

Ricciardo drives to victory, Bottas steals second at the flag