IndyCar

What Drivers Said after Friday’s two IndyCar practices at Sonoma

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Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions (a third/final practice and qualifying is Saturday) for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we were OK. We tested here last week, so we were pretty ready to go. It was difficult this afternoon, to be honest. When I first went out, I wasn’t very happy the first run and then we made really good progress the second run and seemed pretty decent compared to last week. We were happy with our cars when we tested here last Thursday, so we felt optimistic coming into the weekend and now we’re just trying to go through the motions and make the right steps all the way up through the end of Sunday. That’s kind of what you do on a race weekend. You try and make the right decisions every day. So, it was a pretty decent start. Now we’ve just got to put it together tomorrow and Sunday on race day.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Difficult day for the ABC cars at the track today. I think we just didn’t have a great balance, the car was pretty difficult to drive; too much oversteer. The sessions are short, so we didn’t have time to figure it out, but tomorrow is a new day. We are going to debrief, work hard and try to find a faster car.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Today certainly ended better than it started. In P1 we had a problem with the car that we didn’t find until after the fact and led to a difficult session that had us spinning around. I think I was pointing backward as much as I was forward in Practice 1, so it’s nice to rebound and be in the top five this afternoon. Credit to the Arrow Electronics guys for finding the problem and making the car decent. This place is always tricky, and not getting to test here, we were kind of starting a little bit behind, but at least we have three cars again this weekend, so we can use the data from all of them and try to make everybody better. Hopefully this shows that we’ve got decent pace on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) for tomorrow because qualifying at the front here is always nice. Tomorrow is a different day, so we’ve got to put our heads down, try and close the gap a little bit and see what we can do.”

CARLOS MUNOZ (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think we will make a step forward with the black (Firestone primary) tires – we were a little bit more competitive. On the reds (Firestone alternate tires), it wasn’t our greatest run, but at least we know where we are on the timesheet. James (Hinchcliffe) was pretty good on the reds, so we’ll see. We’ll work hard overnight, check all the data, see the car differences and where we can do better. I think for sure the Lucas Oil car has more potential than what we had earlier.”

PATRICIO O’WARD (No. 8 Harding Group Chevrolet): “It was a pretty good day and I’m very satisfied with how we ended. The first practice felt like a shot out of a canon because there were so many cars out there than what I was used to and I didn’t get any clean running. I’m happy I got some clean running in Practice 2. We were working hard on getting the car right for qualifying, so we were on the red (Firestone alternate) tires for most of practice. It feels really good, so now we’re going to work on the black (Firestone primary) tires to get ready for the race setup. As of now, I’m very satisfied with today.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Conditions were a little tough today and we’re down around 30-40 percent overall on downforce compared to last year. Tomorrow could be different and tricky. You have to get the braking right for sure. There was a cool spread on the timesheets today and it was pretty cool seeing an Indy Lights champion up there mixing it up. I also think the temperature is going to play a huge part in what tires you take. We’ll take a look at it tonight and see what we need to do in order to make some gains for qualifying in the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Starting P6 in opening practice was a good start for us in the NTT DATA car here this weekend in Sonoma. I think we have a good car here this weekend and hope to get the maximum from it in qualifying tomorrow. Scott (Dixon) is very fast, as well so far, so I think we’ll have a lot of good data to cover tonight. I’m excited for this weekend and hope we can have some luck finally go our way this season.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “(Qualifying is) going to be very difficult. The track is very low grip. Obviously, we have less downforce this year and it’s just so hard to put a mistake-free lap together. I’m not sure anybody did. Maybe Josef (Newgarden) did. So yeah, it’ll be a very interesting qualifying session. As you can see, it’s very tight at the front, then the middle pack is very tight. It’s just tight all the way through and that’s just INDYCAR now. You can’t pick a bad driver out of that lot. You look at the rookie (Patricio) O’Ward – that’s super impressive first time out. That guy has definitely got some talent.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s been an interesting day. We got traffic a lot on our best laps, so it doesn’t look as good as we want it to look. It’s been a tricky track this year, it’s really hard to understand what the car is doing. We are going to look at some data tonight and see if we can fix it for tomorrow.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 TOTAL Honda): “Practice was OK. We are struggling a little bit and need to find a little more speed. On the reds (Firestone alternate tires), it seemed to take too long for them to come in. By the time they did, they were probably gone by that point. We will keep working on it. I don’t think by any means we have our finger quite on the pulse just yet, but we’re certainly not giving up. We’ll see what we come up with for tomorrow.”

PIETRO FITTIPALDI (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “I think practice went well today with our Paysafe car. The morning session had a lot more grip than the afternoon, but it was like that for everyone. In the afternoon, the temperatures were a lot higher and that changes how the car feels. The track was a lot more slippery, but it’s like that around here. It’s hard to put together one lap, but that’s what we’re going to have to do in qualifying. We were able to be in the top 10 today in practice, but tomorrow is when it counts, so we’ll go debrief with the engineers, find the ideal set up and try to get a top-10 qualifying tomorrow, and hopefully, do the same thing in the race.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “Second practice was certainly a step forward. We closed the gap to the front slightly on blacks (Firestone primary tires) and on reds (Firestone alternate tires), as well. It’s just quite tricky because Sonoma is quite moody. By moody, I mean with the wind, or track temperature, or someone goes off in front of you, so there’s dust on the surface – it’s always changing quite a bit. Reds, there’s a little bit of time left to be had on my part and a couple more changes we can do. I think we’ll be in the window then and be able to start working towards that last little bit of time. We’re not a million miles away, making progress, so hopefully we can find a few more tenths tomorrow morning before going into qualifying.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We definitely have some things to work on for tomorrow. We scanned through lots of different ideas and changes throughout the day today on blacks (Firestone primary tires) and on reds (Firestone alternate tires). Some things worked and some didn’t, so we will piece together what the positives were and build a solid base to start from tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was a good day. We made a big leap forward today. I’m really happy with the DXC Technology Chevrolet. I am so happy with the car that I made a mistake on my fast lap on new tires. The performance of the car is really good right now. I think we will be right there with Will (Power) and Josef (Newgarden) tomorrow. I’m quite happy this weekend so far.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, the finishing position isn’t what we want from today, but at the same time we learned a lot about the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet needs on the Firestone alternates (tires), which will matter in qualifying tomorrow. The weather is supposed to be a little bit cooler tomorrow, maybe more like it was this morning, which bodes well for us with us being a little more competitive in the first practice. We’ll look at all the data and be ready to go for practice tomorrow morning and figure out what we need to do on the alternates tomorrow afternoon.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, I’d say it was an OK day. We were P9 this morning, P11 this afternoon. We just messed up our run on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It looked like we had a run that would have put us top five, we just ran off the track in Turn 2. That kind of ruined our red run, but I think we have a decent race car. It’s another weekend that we’ve been consistently inside the top 10, so I feel good about that. We’re just looking to bring it home in qualifying for another career best tomorrow.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “I think we made a step forward this afternoon from this morning. We had the test yesterday, which I thought was really good for us, but this place changes so quickly and so often. What you have one day doesn’t necessarily transfer completely the next day. We definitely have some work to do overnight – we need to put our heads together. But this isn’t the first time we’ve had a bad Friday, so I have a lot of confidence in the 27 NAPA team that come tomorrow afternoon we’ll be all right.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “It was a good start to the day; we were P1 this morning and overall. We went to some pretty aggressive changes this afternoon, knowing that Practice 2 was our last opportunity to do it before qualifying – being that you don’t want the car too far off in Practice 3 tomorrow morning. We made some changes, got aggressive with it and it was the wrong way. So, we’ll make some changes and head back to where we were in Practice 1, and hopefully, get the DHL car back to its good form.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “I think we made some progress today. The first practice ended with mixed feelings. It was supposed to be better, but the car didn’t really feel happy and the lap time also was not great. For the afternoon session, we made some changes, which was a definite improvement. We had a relatively good performance on the black (Firestone primary) tires, but on the reds (Firestone alternate tires), we need to work hard to find a better balance. But at least we found some direction, which is quite encouraging.”

SANTINO FERRUCCI (No. 39 Cly-Del Honda): “Practice was pretty good today. In the morning session, we were running really well. I was still learning the track and I made a driving mistake in the last chicane and lost something like four-tenths. Then this afternoon, in Practice 2, it went better than I had expected it to. It shows that we have some good pace again on the red (Firestone primary) tires. We’re working hard to keep improving that and we’ll see where we can place our Cly-Del Manufacturing car on the grid tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “I think we were hoping to come out of today and be a bit quicker than we were, but we just didn’t quite get there at the end of the day with the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. We learned a ton yesterday during the test and even more today, so I’d say, even though we aren’t where we want to be, we’re definitely getting closer. We have some work to do tonight and in that first practice tomorrow to make sure we’re ready for qualifying, but I think we’ll get there.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation SiriusXM MSR with SPM Honda): “Today went OK, it wasn’t awesome but it wasn’t bad either. We have generated some momentum the last few races so we want to keep that going. The thing about this track is that if we can make the changes that we need to, it can produce quite a lot of lap time. I’m not concerned right now, we just have to work at it.”

COLTON HERTA (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “I just kept learning. It seems like our pace on blacks (Firestone primary tires) is pretty good, it’s right around top-10 pace. I made a mistake on the red (Firestone alternate) tires and I ended up on the bottom half of the timesheets today, but that’s something to learn off of. I didn’t quite nail the lap. It’s tough when you have one lap, so I’m still trying to get to grips with that. I’ll try to do a better job tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “A lot of driving here is just about staying with the track. The afternoon wasn’t an ideal practice session for us, but we have a good idea of what we need to do for qualifying tomorrow to get the U.S. Concrete car into the Firestone Fast Six.”

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.