What’s quickly become the worst-kept secret in the Verizon IndyCar Series has been made official on Wednesday, with Team Penske officially confirming Josef Newgarden to take over the team’s No. 2 Chevrolet from 2017.
Newgarden shifts to Team Penske after five seasons with the team first known as Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for three years, before it merged with Ed Carpenter Racing to become CFH Racing in 2015 and then reverted back to ECR only for 2016.
Newgarden has won three times and finished a career-best fourth in points last season, behind only the three Team Penske teammates in the team’s 50th anniversary season. Now, he’ll be teammates with Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves as he replaces Juan Pablo Montoya.
“When you look at the top talent in the series, both from a driving and commercial perspective, Josef is near the top of the list,” said team owner Roger Penske. “We are always looking to build toward the future and when we had the opportunity to talk with Josef, we knew that he would be a great fit with our program. He’s a fantastic driver on the track and will be great with our partners off the track. He’s hungry to win more races and win championships and we hope to give him that opportunity as part of our team.”
Newgarden added, “For any open-wheel racer – or any racecar driver in general – Team Penske is a dream job. Roger Penske is a legend in the motorsports community and his team has done just about everything they’ve ever set out to do. I look forward to working with all of Team Penske’s great partners. To get an opportunity to work with Simon (Pagenaud), Will (Power) and Helio (Castroneves), along with the rest of the team, will just help make me a better driver.”
Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.
Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.
A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.
“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”
Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.
He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.
“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.
“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.
“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.
“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”
Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.
“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.
“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”
Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.
Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.
“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.
“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”
This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.