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 “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 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 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.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.