With 2016 plans undetermined, Newgarden focused on finishing 2015 strong

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – It seems with every passing year in Josef Newgarden’s Verizon IndyCar Series career, one thing has come better the next.

His rookie season in 2012 featured some speed but no results. Qualifying took a dip in 2013 but results improved. Then there was the mix of some speed and some results in 2014. This year, there’s been yearlong speed, yearlong results, but not the full consistency needed to make what’s been a career year even better.

Still, with two wins, a third podium at Iowa (runner-up finish), eight total top-10 finishes and a series-high 296 laps led through 13 races, Newgarden is enjoying his best season to date in the No. 67 Hartman Oil CFH Racing Chevrolet.

He sits eighth heading into this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET, CNBC).

“It’s been a good year in a lot of respects,” Newgarden told MotorSportsTalk in an interview at Mid-Ohio this weekend.

“Where we are in the points is a result of Indy GP, Detroit, Texas and Fontana. Those four killed us in points. When we haven’t had bad races we’ve had good ones. Iowa was strong. We had the car to beat over long runs and over the whole night. We missed it a little bit. It’s probably a good thing if we’re disappointed with second.”

Newgarden, who drove for the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team the last three years before SFHR and Ed Carpenter Racing came together – seeds of which were sown at Mid-Ohio last year – said there hasn’t been as big a performance leap as it might seem.

Both teams had been thorns in the proverbial “bigger teams’” sides as single-car outlets, and they’ve only grown stronger as the combined CFH Racing unit, featuring Newgarden in the No. 67 car and Ed Carpenter and Luca Filippi sharing the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

“I don’t think our performance has been a huge leap, and I say that because we were good last year, particularly at the end of the season,” Newgarden said. “We came on so strong. We had fast racecars and we could never execute. This year we’ve continued to have fast cars. We made them even better. Built on the speed and executed better.”

Newgarden’s future, if it isn’t already, will become a major talking point over the next month or so.

Mid-Ohio is traditionally the kickoff to the silly season, but the nature of this year’s condensed schedule means deals might not be happening until the Sonoma weekend or even post-season.

Newgarden signed a one-year deal to remain with CFH Racing for 2015, with a team option for a second. While he’d be keen to stay, it stands to reason he will be exploring the market and other options when the time is right.

“Next year’s hard, because I think everything will happen later, with the way this season has gone,” Newgarden explained. “There’s time after the end of the year. I don’t think movement will happen until late August or September before people do stuff.

“For me, I’m looking at it as I want the best situation possible to win races, and a good environment. To be fair, CFH Racing has provided that for me. They have provided me all the tools they possibly could to be successful. Jeremy (Milless, engineer) is one of those tools.

“This whole group would like to have me back and I’d like to be back. But I have to look for the best opportunity for me, too.”

Newgarden hailed Milless, his second-year race engineer, who has been the young buck upending the veteran engineers and more veteran drivers in this first year of manufacturer aero kits.

“Jeremy is young, yes, but he’s very intelligent. I love working with him,” Newgarden said. “It’s a big reason I stayed with CFH this year, he was going to be my guy again. We have a good combo. He saw my career from the beginning in 2012, but he hasn’t been a primary race engineer that long. He’s put experience in for 10 to 15 years. He’s plenty talented and you see what he’s done. He’s really shined over two years.”

Heading into Mid-Ohio this weekend, Newgarden has a chance to win his third race of the season at the biggest one that got away from him last year. Coincidentally, the other two have been Honda-sponsored races at Barber and Toronto.

“It’d be nice to have a good result here after last year,” he said. “It looked like we’d get the first win last year and it didn’t materialize. I know we’ve executed well. I think we should be in the mix.”

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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