WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Like in his driving career, Paul Tracy isn’t afraid to give the verbal “chrome horn” during his NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series commentary if it’s needed. Watkins Glen, after all, was the site of Tracy’s famous one-liner last year that if Marco Andretti didn’t have a ride at Andretti Autosport, “his only other option was Uber.”
But he’s not afraid to bestow praise when it’s deserved, either.
Tracy’s tenure with Team Penske in the 1990s was a case of being a promising, talented young driver making his way against the establishment – in his case Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi as teammates – and not being afraid to rough it up if needed.
Enter Josef Newgarden, who with his pass for the win last Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park on teammate Simon Pagenaud, may well enter Penske lore as a series champion following his most decisive pass for the lead yet in IndyCar, against an established teammate.
The Gateway pass, occurring at more than 180 mph into Turn 1 of an oval, stands out even more than his pass on Will Power for the lead at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which Tracy’s fellow NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell called “legendary” on that broadcast.
“For sure it was a risky pass that Newgarden took. But the door was open, and it was barely enough to get through, and Newgarden said, ‘Okay, the door is cracked open just enough for me to get through, I’ll kick it open the rest of the way,’ and I don’t think Pagenaud liked that very well,” Tracy told reporters on a conference call previewing this weekend’s NBCSN motorsports tripleheader from Monza (7 a.m. ET), Watkins Glen (1 p.m. ET) and Darlington (6 p.m. ET).
“He felt he had the move covered. He was frustrated after the race, and frankly he kind of gave the race away. He could have closed the door down a little bit more, but he left it just enough open for Newgarden to come through.”
Tracy said Newgarden, now in his sixth season in the championship, has fulfilled the potential evident in his early years – and he knew he had his eye on him from as early as his rookie season, when a passing attempt for the lead on Dario Franchitti went awry at Long Beach in 2012.
“He’s not new to the series. He’s been around for four or five years now, and when he first came in to the series with Sarah Fisher, I knew right away just watching him on track that he was a tremendous talent,” Tracy said.
“He had a lot of talent, a lot of speed. He was brave, and I had said a couple years ago when he was driving for Fisher and the team was folding — about to go on the brink of folding up (eventually merged with Ed Carpenter Racing for one season to form CFH Racing, then reverted back to ECR in 2016 -Ed.), I said, you know, publicly in an interview that somebody like Penske or Ganassi needs to give this kid a chance because he’s the real deal, and it didn’t happen at that point, and he got picked up by Ed Carpenter, and he obviously had a great couple years with him, and then really started to kind of come into his own in terms of the speed and got some wins last year.”
Considering the number of drivers that have passed through Team Penske’s halls, what followed next from Tracy was really high praise, following a meeting he, Bell and Kevin Lee had with Roger Penske pre-race last week at Gateway.
“I said to Roger, I said, ‘This kid is like — he’s the whole deal. He’s American, he’s good-looking, he’s fast, he’s brave as hell, he gets all the sponsors in, he goes to all the sponsor events and loves doing it.’
“He moved down to the shop. He’s in the shop every day with the guys. He’s with his engineers at dinner. He’s everything that you would want as a driver, and Roger completely agreed with me.
“He goes, ‘I haven’t had a guy in a long time that has integrated himself into our team as quickly as Josef has done in six months.’”
High praise indeed. Pagenaud backtracked earlier Thursday at a media luncheon when he sought to downplay any tension. Tracy, who spoke to Newgarden earlier this week, said he’s past it and Pagenaud needs to do the same if he is to retain his championship crown – or risk losing it to his new teammate, the points leader, in his first year at Team Penske.
“I think having looked at it in hindsight and having spoken to Newgarden this week, I had a conversation with him, and you know, they had a little bit of a — not an argument but a disagreement after the race, and he was reminded of the fact that he pulled the same kind of move on Power at Mid-Ohio the year before and hit him wheel-to-wheel and pushed him off the track for the win in the closing laps of Mid-Ohio. So he kind of had selective memory of some moves he made,” Tracy said.
“So I think having thought about it now for a week, he’s probably over it, and he knows he needs to win the next two races if he’s going to win the championship, and you’ve got to move on.”