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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Josef Newgarden

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MotorSportsTalk kicks off its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with the champion, Josef Newgarden. In his first year at Team Penske, Newgarden ascended to the top of the sport.

Josef Newgarden, No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2016: 4th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 4 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 11 Top-10, 313 Laps Led, 9.4 Avg. Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: Champion, 4 Wins, 1 Pole, 9 Podiums, 10 Top-5, 13 Top-10, 390 Laps Led, 7.9 Avg. Start, 6.1 Avg. Finish

The Josef Newgarden seed was planted at Team Penske this season, and in year one, it already grew into a champion.

Quite how well Newgarden meshed in his new environment came as a mild surprise, especially given how troublesome Simon Pagenaud’s first year at Penske was in an entirely new entry as a fourth car. But Newgarden was provided elements to succeed from the off, as with the established No. 2 team and engineer Brian Campe came a crew that had nearly won the title two years previous anyway with Juan Pablo Montoya driving. And for further measure, Newgarden had the benefit of Tim Cindric moving over to become his race strategist. It seemed a perfect set of circumstances at his disposal and it was fully up to the 26-year-old out of Hendersonville, Tenn., who’d moved from Indianapolis to Charlotte, to live up to them.

Signs this new meshing would work occurred almost immediately. Newgarden stood on the podium his second race with the team at Long Beach, then banked a win – albeit aided by teammate Will Power’s late puncture – at Barber. But Newgarden put himself in that spot by way of his forceful but fair move on Scott Dixon earlier in the final stint.

Such was the measure of his title-winning season, where Newgarden was clearly unafraid by the magnitude of the moment and opportunity afforded to him, and grasped it with both hands – particularly after hitting adversity. After a roughish patch in May, with multiple pit-road speeding penalties in the Indianapolis Grand Prix and then getting caught up in an accident at the Indianapolis 500, Newgarden rebounded with fourth and second at Detroit – previously one of his worst tracks.

After an unforced error in Texas, he recovered again at Road America – fresh with a “low downforce” haircut. Sure, Dixon snookered him on a restart there which cost him the win, but Newgarden was on the wrong tire, and he’d lost the lead to a driver many consider the best of this generation. Newgarden again somewhat lucked into a win in Toronto thanks to Cindric’s call to pit – and with Dixon and Power colliding on the first lap, and Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud caught out by Tony Kanaan’s yellow timing, he truly entered the title frame.

But it was at Mid-Ohio and Gateway where he planted his title stake in the ground. His own snookering of Power at Mid-Ohio was crafty, and his take-no-prisoners dive on Pagenaud at Gateway was gutsy to the max, and will stand in history as the pass of the year that netted him his title. He built enough of a lead there to withstand a second unforced error leaving the pits in Watkins Glen, then got off the mat again in Sonoma with an incredible all-around weekend. His practice and qualifying pace there was almost more important than his race drive itself; it positioned him to win the title even without winning the race. Not that he didn’t try for it; Cindric calmed him down after his passing attempt on Pagenaud, but second place behind his teammate was enough for the title in his 100th career start.

There was precious little to criticize about his season. Sure, Power and Castroneves were outright faster in qualifying and the month of May for him was something to forget. There were the obvious mistakes at Texas and Watkins Glen, but neither doomed his title hopes.

WATCH: Newgarden championship recap on NBCSN

As it was, he checked nearly all the boxes afforded to him in one of the more remarkable first years at Team Penske in ages. He led the field on street course points, previously his weakest circuits, was second on road courses and seventh on ovals – the latter number hindered by that weak score in Indianapolis. The 390 laps led this year were spread over 12 races, including the last 10 in a row; last year’s 313 laps led included 282 at Iowa and just 31 elsewhere in three races.

A worthy champion who excelled at almost every phase this season, Newgarden toppled his competition after a six-year climb to the top, en route to a fully deserved first title.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

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