Fresh focus for Newgarden ahead of first May with Team Penske

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For as much jubilation and utter shock as there was for Alexander Rossi in victory lane, there was pure agony standing hundreds of yards away for 2016 Indianapolis 500 runner-up Carlos Munoz and third-place finisher Josef Newgarden.

Munoz seemed to have the inside line on victory barring Rossi’s surprise 36-lap stint on fuel economy to the finish, and Newgarden seemed the only Chevrolet runner to post a proper threat to the Hondas last year, having been that manufacturer’s best balanced car nearly all month in the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The third place finish for Newgarden, then in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, was his best finish yet at Indy in eight combined starts between the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course races. His others, in order? A forgettable 25th, 28th, 17th (2014 GP), 30th, 20th (2015 GP), 9th and 21st (2016 GP).

Yet his best finish to date might have been the hardest to swallow.

Newgarden was left to soak up a tough 2016 P3 last year. Photo: Getty Images

“It took probably 24 hours (to recover). It was so tough because it’s the Indianapolis 500,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “That was the first opportunity I truly had at winning it. When you feel that, when you see it within your grasp… it was tough to lose. It was tough not to capitalize. It was a tough pill to swallow. But if you’re running it enough years a row, maybe one will work out.”

The sting also overshadowed the fact Newgarden made a big leap forward in the season-long points as a result of his incredible month.

After the Grand Prix, he sat 12th in points with only 100 points scored from five races all season.

In the Indianapolis 500, after qualifying second and finishing third, Newgarden scored 111 points for that one race, and spring-boarded to fourth in the championship, which put him in the title conversation for the first time.

“Indy you have to treat as its own event. It’s hard to look at it from a points standpoint… yet you still do, because there’s a lot there,” Newgarden said.

“Indy is a race you want to win. Points are secondary. It’s a big month… but you ask where do you stack up when you leave. To some degree you have to look at it, and in qualifying, you have to look at it as almost a full race of points.”

Things are of course different now for Newgarden, and the first key to starting off a better month of May will be getting past what’s been a traditional stumbling block for the likable 26-year-old out of Hendersonville, Tenn., driver of the No. No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

He has an utterly brutal record in the Grand Prix race, with this stat line: he started 15th and finished 17th in 2014, then started 12th and finished 20th in 2015 (got caught up in Turn 1 accident), and last year, started 25th (qualifying penalty cost him after making Firestone Fast Six) and finished 21st.

“It’s been tough so far, but hopefully we can change the trend there,” Newgarden said. “We either aren’t stellar, or we got better – we got Fast Six and had some speed at ECR – but didn’t convert. It’s not been a good three years there.”

The rest of May will see Newgarden bonding for the longest stretch of time with engineer Brian Campe, who it must be said, is already an Indianapolis 500 race-winning engineer – he did so with Newgarden’s predecessor, Juan Pablo Montoya, in the No. 2 Penske Chevrolet in 2015.

Newgarden tried different aero configurations during testing at Indy this year, as evidenced here with Simon Pagenaud’s rear wing assembly mounted on his No. 2 car. Photo: IndyCar

The Newgarden/Campe relationship has come together quickly, which has been impressive considering Newgarden’s success and dynamic with past engineer at ECR, Jeremy Milless.

“That’s a good point actually… that he’s a race winner. He’s more successful at the Motor Speedway than I am!” Newgarden laughed. “It’s only been three years, but he’s had more success.

“He’s become a very good IndyCar engineer. He’s a great engineer. He’s learned what IndyCar racing is all about, and what you have to look after. He has great notes with him and Juan, and more on what can sneak up on you during the month of May. He’s looked at my list of notes. We collaborate. I get to listen to him, and he listens to my ideas.

“I think it’s been good … I don’t know what I really expected. I never had any issues. Brian and I clicked right off the bat. I didn’t expect us to have any big issues. We’re going through the natural learning process. You have to have experience together for the relationship to grow and blossom. Every weekend we have, the better we get. The more you have those experiences, the better you are.”

Newgarden also admits his comfort level has gone up now having four races under his belt at Team Penske. He was the first of the team’s fearsome foursome to win this year, admittedly a bit lucky with Will Power’s demise but still with a well-judged and executed pass of Scott Dixon at Barber, and enters third in points with 133. So he’s already 33 points ahead of where he was following last year’s Grand Prix, with one more race to add to that tally. He sits 26 behind championship leader, defending series champion, teammate and Phoenix winner, Simon Pagenaud.

“That’s (the comfort level) changed for sure. I’m way more comfortable now, from a jelling standpoint,” he said. “It feels so normal now to get to the racetrack with them.

“But it should get that way. You want to get comfortable with the people you’re working with. It’s a great unit. I love that I feel that way now and go into a race weekend and have success.”

This May also provides Newgarden his first chance to have multiple full-season teammates at his disposal, plus the access of Team Penske’s Rick Mears from a coaching standpoint.

The Penske armada. Photo: IndyCar

This month, Newgarden has four teammates – Pagenaud, Power, Montoya and Helio Castroneves. The last two years were his first years with multiple teammates, and in Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand, neither was a full-season driver and were in one of their first races of their respective seasons.

Beyond that, his past Indianapolis teammates were Indianapolis-only entrants in Alex Tagliani (2014) and the late Bryan Clauson (2012) with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

This means Newgarden will also be able to do mock race simulations with this group of drivers during practice, in a multiple-car pack – a luxury he really hasn’t been afforded previously.

“I’m very excited about that, to be the fifth or fourth car in line,” he said. “That’s hugely helpful for us to work in traffic. You need three or four – and we have that. People have got better with that on these big times.

“I think (this race) is more about how you manage cars in front of you. Sometimes you want to be behind more than in front of them. If you can lead, great, but it’s very short lived at the 500. You have to be able to get back by.”

Newgarden added of Mears, “He’s our local guru, if you will. He’s on Helio (as a spotter), but he’s available whenever.

“For Indianapolis, it’s the best time to talk to him. He’s a wealth of knowledge anywhere. The 500, having him there, takes it to a different level. Spending time with him, he knows it like the back of his hand. He’s such a great observer of this event.”

Newgarden, like the rest of Team Penske, has tested twice at IMS earlier this year so he won’t be going in blind to his first running at the Speedway with his new team.

With the motivation and determination high to eclipse that near-miss of a year ago and an otherwise tough record at Indy, hopes are high that greater results will bloom for Newgarden.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”