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Newgarden’s IndyCar rise fulfilled with Team Penske shot

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It’s not very often you meet a driver coming up through the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder system and immediately think, “this kid just gets it.”

Yet a chance meeting with Josef Newgarden in Gasoline Alley prior to the 2011 Indianapolis 500 provided me that first glimpse of a driver I knew one day would be destined for greatness in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and ultimately driving with one of the biggest and best teams in the series.

That day has arrived – officially – on Wednesday with official confirmation that Newgarden would join Team Penske in the 2017 season, as fourth driver alongside the two newest series champions, Will Power (2014) and Simon Pagenaud (2016) and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves, who is set for his 18th full-time season with the team.

For reference of the age range, Newgarden was 7 years old back in 1998 when Castroneves made his CART debut, and 9 when Castroneves joined Team Penske prior to 2000. And now, they’re teammates.

Newgarden also replaces Juan Pablo Montoya, 41, who’s arguably one of the greatest drivers of his generation. But there have been plenty of moments throughout the last couple years where these two have raced against each other and it speaks volumes of how good Newgarden is that Montoya acknowledges it and respects his ability level.

For being only 25, 26 in December, Newgarden has already traveled quite a road to get here.

After winning the Team USA Scholarship and then struggling a bit in a stacked GP3 field in 2010, Newgarden came back to America in 2011 as the American kid with the quirky spelling of his first name.

He was in the rarified air of winning an Indy Lights title in his first crack, then being rewarded with a three-year contract with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing from 2012 through 2014.

That stability allowed him the opportunity to grow and make mistakes along the way, an opportunity not afforded to enough young drivers in the years since – Newgarden is the last of the Indy Lights champions who’s stuck beyond one mostly full guaranteed season since 2012.

And he’s gotten better each year. In 2012, Newgarden finished 23rd of 24 full-time drivers in points, but that was entirely misleading because he had some standout qualifying efforts, and was unafraid to mix it up with Dario Franchitti from a front row start in his third ever race. This was an “this kid isn’t messing around” moment.

Qualifying was more challenging in 2013 but moments were there; Sao Paulo was a near victory that slipped away in the final laps, and there were a couple other solid drives. His first podium at Baltimore was as much a sense of relief as anything, having qualified P5 and ended second after attacking the curbs.

His first win should have come in 2014. Long Beach and Mid-Ohio were particularly cruel heartbreaks. Inconsistency in the first half of the year gave way to a much more well-rounded driver by the end of the year, and for the first time, his future and ability to move up became a talking point.

In 2015, two wins finally came and then this year, Newgarden stunned with his resiliency and bounceback after a terrifying looking Texas accident to be back in a car only slightly more than a week later at Road America, then delivering the mother of all beatdowns at Iowa to win after leading 282 of 300 laps.

The question in summer was always going to be whether Newgarden’s rise would be rewarded with a step up the grid, after becoming an even more solid, reliable performer working largely with Ed Carpenter the last two years. It’s not that Montoya didn’t merit another year at Penske, but with Newgarden available at year’s end, he was back to being on the radar at a closer point than he had been back in 2011-2012, when Team Penske president Tim Cindric first put his eye on him.

“He’s someone we can build on for the future,” Cindric told reporters Wednesday in a media teleconference. “He brings the average age of our drivers down a little bit. He’s shown he can be successful at this level.

“We met with him when he was Indy Lights champion, with Rick Gorne, with Roger… so we’ve kept our eye on him for a long time. It’s no different than when we signed Simon. Do you make a place for him, or race against him? It’s better to have him on our side versus others.”

Newgarden, who appears poised to join Power and Pagenaud in moving to North Carolina, did his best to repress all the media discussion about his future and outwardly talk only about this season, and wanting to do the best for Carpenter. It’s only been in the last week or so that Newgarden has begun to properly open the Penske file.

“It was a short period (not knowing)… I was in limbo and briefly didn’t have a job. You hope it works out,” Newgarden said during the teleconference. “I didn’t have much time during the season. We all wanted to focus on winning the championship.

“When I did start to think about it after Sonoma… I knew I wanted to try something different. You try to go in a different direction. This time, I did.

“I don’t think I talked to Roger on the phone until 24 hours ago. It was the first time I’d ever had a conversation with Roger. It was great. This team has been so easy to get immersed with, within such a short amount of time. Tim and Roger. It was a very easy decision, and a quick process.”

Newgarden will also have a reliable set of three teammates in Pagenaud, Power and Castroneves. It’s not that his teammates with SFHR/CFH Racing were bad, but they largely were inexperienced by comparison.

“It will be a different challenge for me. Brings more engineers. Changes the discussion and the whole dynamic,” he explained. “It will be a shift for me. I don’t want to discount my previous owner in Ed, and JR Hildebrand, Spencer Pigot, Luca Filippi… because there’s been a lot of camaraderie in the past. What’s really gonna change is that there’s more available here. I think you can see at such a high level… and you push each other a lot more. I hope it pushes me to a new level.”

In the immediate wake of the season finale at Sonoma a couple weeks ago, Newgarden said the lack of consistency – four finishes of 21st or worse balanced out his four podiums this year – was what cost him a greater shot at the title. Even so, he finished a career-best fourth in points – some 19 spots higher than he did as a rookie – and only trailed the three drivers that will be his teammates next year.

“We weren’t consistent enough to match Pagenaud and Will,” he told NBC Sports. “The performance was fairly good. But that’s not the biggest thing. There was a lot of misfortune. If you up the consistency, there’s no reason we can’t challenge for a championship.”

He’ll get that chance next year in his new environment, and he’ll be put to work straightaway with his first test in the No. 2 Chevrolet on Monday at Road America, with his new teammates. A further test at Gateway will follow later next week. Commercial partners aren’t yet finalized and neither is his crew, although Cindric said he’d like to retain continuity with the No. 2 crew led by engineer Brian Campe.

But for now, it’s about soaking up the moment of realizing this next chapter of his dream in America has come true.

IMSA: Heavy news week leading into Thanksgiving holiday

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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After the weekend and before the Thanksgiving holiday this week, IMSA has rolled out a number of announcements itself, while IMSA could be set for further announcements in the weeks to come starting next week.

Here’s a roundup:

QUALIFYING AT ROAR SET FOR PIT POSITIONS, GARAGES AT ROLEX 24

Here are key notes from IMSA’s Monday release about how Sunday at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 will take on a greater significance:

  • The pit boxes and garages each team will use during the Rolex 24 will now be allocated based on fastest qualifying times set during Sunday’s third and final day of the Roar. Each of the three WeatherTech Championship classes – Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) – will have a 15-minute qualifying session on Sunday, Jan. 7.
  • The fastest-qualifying Prototype will receive the first pit box on pit lane starting at pit-in and also will be assigned to the first garage in the Prototype section of the WeatherTech Championship garage. The fastest GTD car will receive the second pit box on pit lane and the first garage in the GTD section, with the fastest GTLM car receiving the third pit box and the first garage in the GTLM section.
  • New for 2018 – P and GTLM will pit together under a full course yellow. Therefore, to give class separation in the pits, P and GTLM teams are assigned pit boxes to ensure they are separated by a GTD Team.

This, coupled with the addition of the first IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda one-hour, 45-minute race with two drivers, will make this a more shaken up Roar.

REGS, REGS, GET YOUR REGS

IMSA has released the Sporting and Technical Regulations for 2018 this week. The aforementioned note about P and GTLM teams pitting together is a change from P and Prototype Challenge (PC) class cars pitting together, with GTLM and GTD together as it was this year.

Restart procedures changed will see P cars moved to the lead ahead of GT cars; this created confusion at times throughout 2017 as sometimes another class leader in PC, GTLM or GTD had been the first car behind a pace car.

Each team will be limited to one car change in-season only, subject to “force majeure.”

On the off chance a driver is racing in two cars, his or her maximum drive time will be counted cumulatively between the two cars.

There are other tweaks, of course, but most are largely procedural or within the fine print.

RATINGS REVEALED

The good news with IMSA going down from four classes to three for 2018 is that only one designated pro-am class remains in the form of GT Daytona, which requires at least one Silver (or Bronze) full-season driver alongside the designated pro. Those sneaky “Super Silvers” remain an invaluable asset for using his or her results to their benefit.

The FIA released the initial driver ratings for 2018 this week with a few changes, some young pros going up from Silver to Gold and others getting their request to get downgraded from Gold to Silver approved. Drivers have a couple weeks to appeal if they so desire.

Here’s your friendly reminder of what drivers can be in what GTD cars for the first two races at Daytona and Sebring:

  • Daytona (5 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) or five (5) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.
  • Sebring (4 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.

MAZDA KEEPS ON TESTING, CLOSES ON ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Los Angeles Auto Show, held after Thanksgiving, is a likely landing spot for Mazda Team Joest to reveal, officially, its revised “Evo” version of the Mazda RT24-P and its driver lineup for the 2018 season. While most of the Prototype class lineups (DPi and LMP2-spec cars) have been revealed, Mazda’s has been an exception. In the interim, not long after its Daytona test late last month, they’ve also been testing at Sebring.

FROM SPACE CENTER TO DOWN UNDER

Jordan Taylor undertook testing of a different kind not long ago at, of all places, the Kennedy Space Center. One of this year’s Prototype class champions was undertaking a straight line test in his No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. Taylor being Taylor, the moment couldn’t pass without him winning at social media (see third tweet).

Taylor goes from down a long runway to down under, visiting his first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship race this weekend at its season finale in Newcastle.

‘MAKING OF A CHAMPION’ PIECES ROLL OUT

The fourth installment of IMSA’s “making of a champion” series highlights Jordan Taylor, who co-drove with brother Ricky to the Prototype class championship this year. These two are part of four done by IMSA so far, along with Pato O’Ward (PC) and Christina Nielsen (GTD). More should follow in the coming weeks.

SPEAKING OF CHAMPS, HINDMAN, AGOSTINI, PRESTIGE WIN LAMBORGHINI WORLD FINAL

The Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Final was held last weekend at the Imola circuit in Italy and the American Prestige Performance team won the World Final overall, with co-drivers Trent Hindman and Riccardo Agostini.

The World Final brings together teams from North America, Europe and Asia that campaign the spec Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in Super Trofeo regional competition. Hindman and Agostini got the weekend off on the right foot by winning the North American championship first, then followed it up at the World Final itself to topple all other domestic and international entries.

You might remember we profiled Hindman last month, as the 22-year-old’s star in the sports car world is clearly on the rise.

Somehow, someway, at the end of the day today we received the title 2017 Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Champions. Race 2 was not perfect and much more nerve racking than we would have hoped but fortunately in the end the job was done. I am honored to be sharing this with @rickyagostini as well as the entire @prestigeperfctr @waynetaylorracing team and I thank them for their incredible effort all year. With this result, we are the first ever American team to win the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Championship overall. 3/4 overall wins along with the Super Trofeo North America and World titles marks the end of a successful 2017 campaign. Back to reality tomorrow. Thank you all for following us along on this incredible journey.

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