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IndyCar: Harding Racing 2018 Review

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Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, MotorSportsTalk will review how each organization in the IndyCar Series performed in 2018 and also taking a look ahead to 2019. We previously featured Juncos Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, and Carlin Racing. We continue with Harding Racing (now called Harding Steinbrenner Racing).

The 2018 season was Harding Racing’s second in the IndyCar Series – they contested three races in 2017 – but their first full-season effort.

They began the year with Gabby Chaves, brought in Conor Daly for three races, brought Chaves back for two races, and then ended the year with Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta.

A somewhat tumultuous season ended on a high note, though, with O’Ward qualifying fifth and finishing ninth at Sonoma Raceway. What’s more, the revamped team, now called Harding Steinbrenner Racing, with support from Andretti Autosport, heads into 2019 with much better prospects and with a pair of young hot shots in O’Ward and Herta as their drivers.

One of the newest teams in racing – it literally did not exist prior to 2017 –  could be in for a big year in 2019.

Gabby Chaves

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 4
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 0 podiums
2018 final standing: 21st
2018 final stats: 13 starts; 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 top fives; 0 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 13th (Portland)

SEASON WRAPUP: Gabby Chaves remains a top young prospect, though he continues to suffer from a simple lack of breaks. Chaves had finishes of ninth and fifth in two of his three starts with Harding in 2017, and entered 2018 hoping to build on that in the team’s first full season.

Yet, it was tough sledding for the single-car effort, and the combination did not score a top 10 in any of their 13 starts together. Ahead of Toronto, the team opted to evaluate driver options ahead of 2019 and pulled Chaves out of the cockpit, though he remained present within the team.

He started two more races, at Gateway Motorsports Park and Portland International Raceway, before yielding to O’Ward and Herta for Sonoma.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Even though O’Ward and Herta are the team’s drivers for next year, Chaves is still under contract with Harding. Although he certainly deserves a spot on the grid, where he lands at this point is completely up in the air.

Quote (following Portland, where he finished 13th): “We had a clean race through the start and I managed to pick up a bunch of positions, running inside the top 10 for a good part of the day. We struggled a bit on the black (Firestone primary) tires, so we lost a few positions on track when we were running our stint. We still managed to be in a good contention for a top-10 finish. On the last restart, I had a good run on TK (Tony Kanaan), he just didn’t give me any room and I ended up in the grass while trying to defend the next position. After that, I had to give up that position, as well. We have been improving the car all weekend and all year, so although 13th is not fantastic, it shows progression, which is good.”

 

Conor Daly

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 5
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 1 podium
2018 final standing: 29th
2018 final stats: 4 starts (**3 with Harding, 1 with Dale Coyne/Thom Burns Racing); 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 top fives; 0 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 13th (Toronto)

SEASON WRAPUP: Conor Daly’s 2018 season became busier than anticipated during the summer when Harding drafted him in for a stretch of three races between Toronto, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Pocono Raceway.

Jumping in mid-season is a tall task, but Daly held as good of an account for himself as possible, bringing the car home in all three races and helping the team improve.

LOOKING FORWARD TO 2019: Daly is back in a familiar place ahead of 2019: looking for sponsorship to keep his career going. Like Chaves, Daly deserves a place on the grid, but whether or not that happens will likely come down to funding.

QUOTE (following Pocono, where he finished 15th): “It was obviously a tough day for us. We had to go into the race with almost no track time, so it was a big guess. At every stop, we put in a lot of front wing. We just kept trying to adjust, but still just struggled with the front of the car. I think by ourselves our pace was good, and we were maintaining a decent spot for where we were on track. I had one chance to pass someone for position and went for it with Ed, but I had no front grip at all and then clipped it. It’s a shame. You hate to end your day like that, thankfully the car wasn’t badly damaged, just small stuff. I would love another shot at it because I think there are some positives to our car and some positives to what we have, I just don’t think we had enough time to evaluate everything.”

 

Patricio O’Ward

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 1
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 0 podiums, 1 top five, 1 top 10
2018 final standing: 31st
2018 final stats: 1 start, 1 top 5, 1 top 10
2018 best race finish: 9th (Sonoma)

SEASON WRAPUP: The 2018 Indy Lights champion served notice at Sonoma Raceway that he means business. O’Ward qualified fifth and finished ninth in his IndyCar debut, and managed to be a shining star on a weekend in which the championship was decided. That he was able to garner such fanfare on a championship-deciding weekend says all you need to know about his potential impact.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: O’Ward will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for Harding Steinbrenner Racing and will look to repeat performances like the one he had at Sonoma.

QUOTE (after Sonoma, where he finished ninth): “It was a really great weekend, we learned a lot. We qualified the car fifth and we ended the race ninth. As a driver, you want to stay in your qualifying position or get better. But I think for a first try, especially with a super long race with three or four pit stops that was a job well done. I’m really satisfied, and I just want to get better for next year.”

 

Colton Herta

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Team: Harding Racing
Years in IndyCar: 1
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s
2018 final standing: 37th
2018 final stats: 1 start, 0 tops 5s, 0 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 20th (Sonoma)

SEASON WRAPUP: Colton Herta’s lone start at Sonoma did not garner the same fanfare as that of his teammate O’Ward. However, Herta’s effort was no less valuable as he gained great experience in how an IndyCar race weekend operates. The 2018 Indy Lights runnerup, and 2018 Freedom 100 winner, is a bright young prospect and looks to have a long career ahead of him.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Herta will be O’Ward’s teammate, piloting the No. 88 Chevrolet for the Harding Steinbrenner outfit.

QUOTE (following Sonoma, where he finished 20th): This weekend was a good experience. I’m not too happy with the result, but I’m happy with how my debut went and the pace that I showed. There are sure some things that I can work on going into the offseason. I had an amazing time. Thank you to Harding Racing, Mike Harding, Team Chevy and Firestone. Can’t wait to see if we can do it again in St. Pete.”

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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.