BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As Josef Newgarden took the lead for the final time in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, on Lap 70 of the 90-lap race, the usually ice cool, steely, yet suave 24-year-old American rising star entered a new thought process.
Just get this freaking thing over with.
Newgarden has been in win or podium position several times in his three-plus years in the Verizon IndyCar Series previously, only to have things slip away.
The two most notable losses occurred last year at Long Beach and Mid-Ohio; the former race, Ryan Hunter-Reay made an overambitious passing attempt into a corner where passing is often frowned upon that took them both out. At Mid-Ohio, a glitch on his final pit stop cost him and his team what appeared a sure victory.
On Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park in his No. 67 Hartman Oil CFH Racing Chevrolet, he was determined not to let it happen again.
“I’m honestly just happy it’s over with. I feel like we’ve been working forever for that,” Newgarden said after scoring his first win in his 55th career start.
“I’m so relieved that it’s over with. I really wanted that race to end. Right from the middle of it, it was so stressful for me. Normally I’m pretty cool. I felt cool out there, but it was just very stressful to run those laps, try to control that.
“We’ve been there before, things have gone wrong. Today nothing went wrong.”
Mild thoughts of past near misses entered Newgarden’s mind, but it wasn’t really something on the forefront as it was completing those last 20 laps.
“You know, I did think about that during the race. I wasn’t worried about it,” he said. “If something broke or I messed up and threw the car off, maybe there were some crazy circumstances or the strategy didn’t work out. Whatever it may be, if it didn’t happen today, I really wasn’t worried about it.”
What today was, was the culmination of a years-long journey to victory lane in the Verizon IndyCar Series as one of the series’ brightest, young American talents.
Newgarden got his start fairly late in racing in his mid-teen years, and grew up racing go-karts on a regular basis in Newcastle, Ind.
His career journey took him to GP3, followed by a return to America in Indy Lights in 2011. There, he won multiple races en route to the title (his most recent win at Kentucky 2011), and his opportunity that arose with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing prior to 2012.
He’s been close but no cigar on several occasions, as mentioned above. His best finishes of second occurred at Baltimore 2013 and Iowa last year.
Among the people he could thank were his pit crew, led by race strategist Andy O’Gara and engineer Jeremy Milless. Newgarden could have ran longer on fuel in the final stint, but didn’t really want to push it, especially with noted fuel saver Scott Dixon not far behind him.
“I’m not going to lie. I got really nervous on that last stint,” Newgarden said. “I wasn’t nervous in the team at all, not a bit. I felt super confident in our group, what we were doing.
“But they kept telling me to save more fuel. I mean, it was like halfway through the stint, and it was, ‘Dude, we’re good.’ We’re totally clear to go to the end. Then they were like, Just to be safe, let’s drop that fuel number down a little bit more. Then they said that like two more times.
“I went on the radio, and I was like, Okay, so are we good or are we just being safe? I’m pretty sure we were being safe because I understood we were very clear to go. We were confident in the fuel numbers we were hitting.”
Beyond the crew, Newgarden made sure to thank everyone who has helped him to this journey, from his parents and family members, to his friends, and to his supporters. His girlfriend, Ashley Welch, also made a rare race appearance at a track only a few hours from Newgarden’s Hendersonville, Tenn. hometown.
“For us, I’m so pleased for anyone and everyone that helped me get to this point, especially my parents (Joey and Tina),” he said. “There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into any young kid’s life. When you have good parents that really raise you well, want the best for you as a young kid, they put that time and effort in, there’s a lot that goes in from that side.
“I was one of the lucky ones where I got a call from Wink Hartman, Sarah Fisher, Andy O’Gara, and they gave me an opportunity to be a professional driver. Then they kept me in a seat for all these years, continuing this year with Ed Carpenter, everyone involved in Ed Carpenter Racing.
“I’ve been blessed to have an opportunity to be a driver. I mean, not a lot of kids nowadays that want to be professional racecar drivers, they don’t get that opportunity.
“There’s a lot of people to thank that go into a day like this.”