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.”

Donny Schatz edges Kyle Larson for Outlaws victory at Lake Ozark

Trent Gower/World of Outlaws
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Donny Schatz made a last-lap pass on Kyle Larson, snatching a World of Outlaws victory Saturday night at Lake Ozark Speedway.

Larson started on the pole, led 30 of 35 laps and was in control until a caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish before a limited crowd in Eldon, Missouri.

Schatz and Larson traded the lead twice over the final two laps, but the 10-time champion emerged with his first victory since the NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series returned in mid-May from a two-month layoff because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

‘THEY’VE STUCK BEHIND ME’: Kyle Larson comments on future, Outlaws plans

“Man, I don’t know what to say, but Kyle’s a damn good racer,” Schatz, who led five laps, told DirtVision after his 296th Outlaws win. “I kind of had to go where he didn’t. We got that green-white-checkered, and I decided I was going to send it. He decided the same thing.

Donny Schatz celebrates at Lake Ozark Speedway after his second Outlaws Sprint Car victory of the season (Trent Gower).

“I’m glad to get the win. It feels like it’s been forever. I’ve been out here 24 years, and every night is a learning experience still.”

Larson finished second in his fifth start since he began racing with the Outlaws after being suspended from NASCAR.

“Obviously, it would have been nice to get the win,” Larson said on DirtVision. “I figured Donny would rip the middle. The restarts before, he’d almost clear me in (turns) 3 and 4. I should have known to protect and block his momentum. I felt I exited 2 OK. We don’t have spotters or rearview mirrors so you can’t see how close he is or really hear it when the pace is so slow.

“I just didn’t do a good enough job to run a smarter final couple of laps.”

Brad Sweet, Larson’s brother in law, finished third, with Shane Stewart and David Gravel rounding out the top five.

Larson rebounded from a 10th in Friday’s feature at Lake Ozark Speedway, continuing his streak of top-10 finishes in all five of his starts since the Outlaws’ return.

“We got our car a lot better from last night, so that was a plus,” said Larson, who finished second and first in back-to-back nights last week at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at Pevely, Missouri. “These guys are really tough. To be on the podium with Donny and Brad, they’ve won lots of big races and championships, it’s nice. I just didn’t do what I needed to do that last restart.”

Larson nearly had a flawless night Saturday, turning a 11.426-second lap to capture his second pole position this season and won the pole dash to start first in the feature.

Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing from his NASCAR Cup Series ride last month for using a racial slur in an iRacing event, said last week that he plans to run several more NOS Energy Sprint Car Series races this year.

Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR but was approved to race by the Outlaws after completing sensitivity training.