Josef Newgarden strengthens grasp on IndyCar Series championship

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PORTLAND, Oregon – Josef Newgarden hasn’t finished on the podium of an NTT IndyCar Series race since he won in the early hours of July 21 in the Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway.

At that time the 2017 IndyCar Series champion had a 29-point lead over Alexander Rossi.

Since that race, Newgarden has finished 14that Mid-Ohio, fifth at Pocono, seventh and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and fifth in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland.

His lead in the NTT IndyCar Series standings has increased to 41 points over Rossi, 42 over Simon Pagenaud and 85 over five-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.

There remains just one race to go, the double-points paying championship finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca on September 22. If Newgarden is able to maintain his championship lead in that race, he will win his second NTT IndyCar Series title.

What made Newgarden’s race in Portland so important is he started 13th, narrowly missed a major melee in the first lap crash at the start of the contest and race his way back to the top-five. The only driver that may have had a more impressive comeback was Team Penske teammate and 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud, who started 18thand finished seventh. He was involved in that first lap crash in Turn 1 that left his car facing the wrong way on the track after he was tagged in the rear by Max Chilton’s Chevrolet.

“I would have liked more points, but at the end of the day, it’s not a bad result for us,” Newgarden said. “I made our bed for us yesterday in qualifying. You start 13th you kind of put yourself in a hole already, and we just tried to climb out of it today as best as possible, and I don’t think we can be mad about where we climbed to. It was pretty decent.

“What could have happened if we started up front more? Maybe we could have done more damage and won the race or finished second or third and would have been a little better off. But I think, for the most part, fifth is pretty pleasing on the day.”

Especially, the way that day started in Turn 1 when James Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly, Graham Rahal and Zach Veach were all involved in the Turn 1 crash. Newgarden was able to get by but Pagenaud spun trying to avoid the carnages.

“We just missed all that chaos,” Newgarden said. “It happened right in front of me in Turn 1, so I was in the mess. But fortunately, we didn’t touch anything, it was just right in front of us. I stopped and then went around it, and we got going again.

“I had nowhere to go because it was right in front of me, and the decision-making process, I couldn’t really go right because Rahal was coming right at that moment, and then once they hit, they were kind of flowing to the left, and then I was just kind of stuck right in the middle. So, I just waited for it all to stop and then went around it. I was kind of lucky in a way.

“I was just thankful that no one plowed into me. That’s what you’re waiting for is someone to hit you or just something bad to happen, and it almost did, but we just, fortunately, avoided it. I really wasn’t worried about where we came out just because it was Lap 1, and it was like, that doesn’t matter. As long as we can get through the start, then we can get going. So, I was happier about that, that we got through it with a car that was still in one piece.

“A relatively good day, for the most part. We just need to have a better weekend in Laguna. Obviously, it’s still going to be quite tough with the double points. If it wasn’t double points, I think it would be a lot easier, but double points is going to make it difficult.”

Newgarden flat-spotted his right front tire and it was a real handful at the lows speed the cars had to run during the very long caution to clean up the mess in Turn 1.

2019 Portland GP at Portland International Raceway

Because the yellow flag was out until Lap 11, Newgarden’s Team Penske crew changed their race strategy, opting to make just two pit stops instead of three. In fact, the first five drivers all made two stops with Spencer Pigot in sixth place the first driver to make three stops.

“The more the laps ticked off, the more you go, ‘Well, this is a no-brainer two-stop(race).’ Why would you do a three-stop? A three-stop is going to be more of a gamble at that point than a two-stop. The guys who didn’t want to gamble, it was a pretty easy decision to go to two.”

Last year, Scott Dixon was involved in a first-lap crash in Turn 2 but was able to keep his engine fired and drive away from the damage. He went on to finish fifth and in the next race, clinched his fifth NTT IndyCar Series championship.

The same thing could happen to Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion, this year.

But don’t tell him that – he’s too busy calculating the points in his head.

“Yeah, 60 would have been better(than 41),” Newgarden said. “Well, really 70would have been nice. Heck, 90. 90 would have been lovely.

“No, it’s honestly not enough with double points. It’s just not. I don’t think we’re very comfortable. Maybe we’ve got Scott’s mojo from last — it was like Scott could do no wrong last year. Nothing ever bad happened to him, and this year he’s had a couple of small things hit him here right at the end, the radiator and now the battery deal. I don’t know what it was, but it sounded like that’s what it was. It’s like he’s got the complete opposite of what he had last year.

“That’s IndyCar. Sometimes this cycles around. You’ll get the good years; you’ll get the bad. Hopefully, we continue to have a good year in Laguna and then kind of finish it off because you never know when you’re going to have a bad year again. It’s far from over, but I for sure would rather be in the position we are in instead of second or third.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”