Interstate 65 becoming Josef Newgarden’s ‘Highway to Victory’

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – It’s 221 miles from Josef Newgarden’s hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee to Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. All he has to do is hop on Interstate 65 and drive South.

The Team Penske NTT IndyCar Series driver knows the route by heart.

With three wins in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama since 2015, including the last two years in a row, Newgarden has become a master of this magnificent 2.3-mile, 17-turn natural terrain road course.

“Honestly, I really don’t know why I’m so successful there lately,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “I’ve always liked Barber. The races for one reason of another seem to pan out there. It’s so difficult to win in these IndyCar races. Everything has to line up. You have to catch the cautions correctly. Your plan has to really work out depending on where wrecks are happening or tire choices amongst the field and if your tire choice is correct to what other people chose. There are just so many variables now.

“The Barber event just always seems to work out. I don’t know why. I like the track; I’ve always been quick around there. It’s just one of those circuits that has a lot of high-speed sections and I’ve always liked high-speed sections in an Indy car and thought I was pretty good at that. That’s some of the reasons that has helped.”

The 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion has gotten off to a fast start to the 2019 season. He won the March 10 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and followed that with a second-place finish to race-winner Colton Herta in the March 24 INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas.

That makes him the early leader in the 2019 standings, 18 points ahead of Herta and 36 in front of five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.

A fourth win in Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would solidify his path in the championship battle this year.

Watch the race on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN or at NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports app

“I don’t always know why things work out the way they do but at St. Pete we had great race cars underneath us, which goes a long way,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com about his early-season success. “Everything starts with finding speed and we’ve had speed at both events.

“At St. Pete, we had a lot of speed. That is the first ingredient to me that is necessary to have consistent finishes. I think we’ve made a big step in that front, specifically with street courses. We are very encouraged by what is going to take place for the rest of the year. We have solid foundation under us. Hopefully, on the road courses that will be the same case, but I think we have a little more work to do on the road course side as we move throughout the season.”

Team Penske changed race engineers over the offseason with Gavin Ward taking over for Brian Campe, who was elevated to Team Penske Technical Director. Ward came from Formula One and was previously an engineer at Red Bull F1 for Daniel Ricciardo.

“It has been a real pleasure getting to work with Gavin, full-time,” Newgarden continued. “He is super talented. He has a wonderful attitude. He’s a really good addition to the team and has been that way straight from the first day he started working there a year ago. It’s been pretty seamless because I had him with me last year and had the benefit of working with both him and Brian Campe.

“Brian was the point guy, but Gavin was still there throughout the whole thing. It didn’t feel like we were starting at square one when we started the season. It’s been a very smooth transition. He’s been a great engineer. We get along very well. The whole dynamic of the team has been pretty solid from the start.”

Chevrolet has developed an increase in horsepower, and that has been noticeable to Newgarden and the other Chevrolet drivers. He also believes Team Penske has discovered a few tweaks that can me bad in the second year of the aerodynamic package on the Dallara Indy cars.

“We’ve been pushing it with Chevrolet to be better in all fronts,” Newgarden said. “We’re making progress every year. We are for sure better in all areas. We have improved our fuel mileage. Our reliability is rock solid, which is what we expect from Chevrolet and they have delivered that. And our power is pretty good. We know we need to stay on top of those things. If we don’t continue to keep improving them, that is when you risk falling behind.

“As far as the aero kit, we have definitely made progress. We all sat down very early in the offseason last year and got together as a group, all of the drivers and engineers, and tried to devise a plan that really addressed all of our concerns from 2018 and where we thought we could be better. As a group, we have improved our chassis. I think the engineers have done a really nice job homing in on a few areas. And we have found more speed.”

Newgarden dominated the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series season to win the championship with four wins and one pole. Last year, he won three races and had four poles, but finished fifth in the title run that was won by Dixon.

“For us, we had a lot of success last year with poles,” Newgarden said. “We had a lot of poles between Will Power and me and we had speed on qualifying day, but it didn’t always translate into race speed. That seemed to change throughout the year. We weren’t spectacularly consistent last year. Trying to find some consistency in the race car was a big key for us and we have found that in the offseason.”

What the time found in the offseason may be on display this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Even before Newgarden moved back to the suburb of Nashville, Tennessee over the offseason, Newgarden has raced in numerous categories at the facility that is known as the “Augusta National of Racing.”

“It’s a fun event for me,” Newgarden said. “Regardless of the location, it’s a cool facility. It’s a cool atmosphere and one I look forward to all year round. Certainly, having it in close proximity to Nashville is an advantage, though. It’s easy to get there for me, which is always nice.

“It is one of our best tracks we go to. It’s one of my favorites. I like everywhere that we race, but that is a highlight for me. We have great racing for whatever reason. I think it’s the way the track has evolved, and the way people have set up the car around there, and the way the tires perform on that track lends itself for better passing. There is a correct level of drop-off to the tires that is perfectly matched for good racing conditions.”

Newgarden is becoming a popular figure in Nashville. He regularly attends Nashville Predators games in the National Hockey League. Nashville is also becoming a hotbed for IndyCar fans.

Barber Motorsports Park is 225 miles to the South and the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway – home of the Indianapolis 500 – is 292 miles up I-65.

“I think in general there are a lot of racing fans in Nashville, that are aware of IndyCar and like it,” Newgarden said. “There are a lot of new fans that are liking it. A lot of people that I meet that are learning what I do and get interested in it and start watching the races and love what we have to offer. It’s cool. I think it’s a great market for us. A lot of people are very interested in what we have going on and follow along.

“I think our racing fans are Nashville are racing fans. They like seeing everything. Whether they are NASCAR fans or IndyCar fans, they like watching both most of the time. They are good with all of it.”

Each of Newgarden’s three Nashville wins have been significant for various reasons. When he drove to victory in 2015, it was his first career NTT IndyCar Series win. He was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing and after years of trying to develop into a race winner, it became a reality when he defeated a hard-charging Graham Rahal to the checkered flag.

“That first win in 2015, just took forever,” Newgarden said. “I remember being so close to winning a race for so long and it not panning out. It finally did that day at Barber. We always had speed there. Once you get that first win out of the way, it certainly brings a lot of confidence and makes you feel like you can do it again and get to Victory Lane much easier.

“There was a lot of work that was put in from 2012 to 2015, the merger with Ed Carpenter Racing. There was so much effort throughout the years, it was big to reward everyone for getting that first win. I was over the moon about it. Everyone that had their hand in it was very pleased to see it finally pay off after so many close calls for us to finally win it. It was a big day in 2015.”

When Newgarden won at Barber in 2017, it was his first win for Team Penske and came in a season where he won the championship.

“We had a good start in 2017,” Newgarden said. “We were pretty quick right out of the gates. It was nice getting that first win there. Early in the new partnership, you want to get success early to validate the transition. It was really pleasing to have it happen so soon in that season of 2017. To have it happen at Barber, was pretty cool. To have it where I had my first win, to have another first with Team Penske just seemed right.”

Last year’s win was his first back-to-back victory at a track, and it came under unusual circumstances. Heavy rain and darkness forced the originally-schedule date to be postponed. The race was completed on the following Monday morning.

“It was a weird deal,” Newgarden remembered. “I had never been involved in a race where you come back the next day and run, so it was a first for a lot of people, but it’s something that had to happen. We were running into light issues with how deep we were having to wait in the rain. The rain itself was relentless. The more it fell, the worse the track got and then it got to the point where we couldn’t really run on it.

“It was unfortunate we couldn’t get it in on that day. But for the most part, people still came out to the event and supported it. It’s always a good atmosphere around Barber. It’s unfortunate when rain ruins things like that, but I was happy with the way it worked out by coming back Monday and capping it off with a win.”

Three wins in four attempts is a pretty good average for any race driver. Another victory at Barber on Sunday would help Newgarden break away from the IndyCar pack early in the season.