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.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.