Life aboard the ‘Death Star’ is just fine for IndyCar points leader

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MONTEREY, Calif. – As a fan of “Star Wars,” Josef Newgarden naturally gets a kick out of how many detractors and haters in the NTT IndyCar fan base view his team.

“I don’t know how you turn down (car owner) Roger (Penske) and the opportunity with Team Penske, but it’s so interesting: These guys are like the Death Star,” Newgarden said with a laugh ahead of today’s season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “I’ve heard people call us that, too. They’re like too good that people hate us. You get another side of that, too, there’s a lot of people that love Team Penske for all the right reasons. But I kind of like that. It’s lonely at the top.”

With a record 18 Indianapolis 500 victories, 15 series championships and more than 200 victories, it’s no wonder that Penske is viewed as the New England Patriots or New York Yankees of the IndyCar circuit.

TODAY: IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC

There’s a 50 percent chance that “The Captain” will add to his title total in today’s 2019 season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. Newgarden (who will start fourth today in pursuit of his second championship) has a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi, and Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud also is title eligible (along with Scott Dixon).

So if the Darth Vader jokes begin anew, Newgarden is ready to laugh along with them – especially given that his venerable team owner is viewed with reverence across several racing series (Penske also owns teams in the NASCAR, IMSA and Supercars).

“I say it as a joke, because I’ve heard fans call us that,” he said so that’s why I say the joke. I don’t feel like we’re the Death Star. “I think what everyone has for Team Penske is a deep amount of respect, which is across the board. I think everyone respects Roger and his organization tremendously and rightfully so. He’s such a tremendous person and he’s done so much for so many communities and done so much within the sport, and you hear all these stories about who he is as a person, and it’s understandable why.

“They race with a lot of dignity and do things the right way, so I think everyone respects the team, but I just see a lot of people hate them because they’ve won so much and in so many series. Specifically, IndyCar, they’ve dominated so much over the years that I don’t think people like them. But that’s also sport. You want to see the titans fall. You want to see the underdogs win.”

Will Power, who has driven at Penske for more than a decade and won the 2018 Indy 500 and the 2014 championship, said he hardly notices the flak from fans.

“Yeah, I guess if I was looking at it from the outside, ‘Screw those guys, man!’” Power said with a laugh. “(They have) too big of a budget. Get them out of here.

“You know when you are truthful in the media, you get called out on Twitter. People hate the truth these days. You got to be truthful.”

So is Team Penske more akin to the Patriots or the Yankees?

“Probably both,” Newgarden said. “I secretly respect those type of organizations. I really respect the greatness from the Patriots or the Yankees when on top. I just see the achievement of it. It’s not easy to do what people do at the top level of sports, whether it’s racing or baseball or football. It’s really difficult. You’ve got the best people in the world doing this full time to beat the other best people.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.