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.

NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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