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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.

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.