IndyCar: Josef Newgarden attempts to win consecutive championships


It’s been nearly a decade since Dario Franchitti won back-to-back NTT IndyCar Series championships. That came during his glorious run of four championship and three Indy 500 victories in five years of IndyCar competition. Franchitti won three of his four championships from 2009-2011.

The only driver in IndyCar this season who can accomplish that is two-time champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske. The 2017 IndyCar champion also won last year’s title.

“I’ll take them any way I can get them,” Newgarden told “If we have to do one year on, one year off, I don’t mind that. If that’s the deal we have to make, great.

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“Back to back would be great. After 2017, I thought 2018 was very good. We didn’t drop off; we just could not convert on race weekends. That was our big problem; converting results. Last year, that was our bread and butter. We would convert. We would figure out a way to turn a fifth place into a third place, or turn a second into a win, or turn a win into a win. Sometimes we would struggle to do that in 2018.

“If we can keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve had the speed every year and the strategy right every year, it’s just sometimes the execution has dropped. Certainly, there are some mistakes there and I made some mistakes myself. You are always looking to clean that up.

“If we can do relatively the same stuff as last season, I don’t see any reason why we can’t go back to back.”

Newgarden begins that quest when he joins his fellow NTT IndyCar Series competitors in the 2020 season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He is the defending winner of the race.

Newgarden won the 2017 IndyCar championship in his first season at Team Penske. He enjoyed another outstanding season in 2018, but it was Scott Dixon who celebrated his fifth IndyCar Series championship.

Last season, Newgarden was able to withstand the best that IndyCar had to offer and win his second title in three seasons.

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images

According to the 29-year-old driver from Hendersonville, Tennessee, the appreciation level for the second championship was greater than the first.

“I think you have more perspective every year, whether that is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the IndyCar Series itself, you know what it takes,” Newgarden admitted.

The battles on the track take its toll on the competitors from a mental standpoint. Newgarden admits he has to psyche himself up for another season, because he realizes the relentless “all in” approach that it takes to be successful in today’s IndyCar Series.

“Every year, when we start back up after a little break in the offseason, I always have a moment where I ask myself, ‘Are you ready to go? Can you put together a full year again?’” Newgarden admitted. “It honestly takes a tremendous amount of effort and a tremendous amount of energy just to put a full season together, let alone the compact schedule of May at Indianapolis.

“The entire year is so exhausting, and it takes a lot. You have to put everything into it.

“I have that reset point before every season starts where I wonder if I’m really ready to do that again and mount a challenge.

“I feel my energy again and know what it takes to get to St. Pete and get a good starting point like I did last year.”

The blueprint for another championship is easy to formulate, but very difficult to accomplish.

It comes from right out of the Team Penske playbook.

“It’s the details,” Newgarden said. “Some of these races, people are like, ‘How did you win that race and where did you come from?’ If you look at the data, it’s really clear how we won our races.

“We just execute so supremely well. That gets me excited. I know I have a group around me that is good on strategy, good on pit stops and they know the right time to make the right move. When you give me the right car and I know what is going on, I’m going to make the right things happen at the right time. Things like, in and out laps, when to use push to pass, how to use the tires.

“It comes down to some inherent race speed like we had last year. Tim Cindric (Team Penske president who calls Newgarden’s race strategy) was right on it every time.

“We never missed a beat. The pit crew was on it. We got four or five of the fastest pit stops in the race. It’s the details. They all have to line up. You can’t make one mistake. If you make one little mistake, it puts you back at the wrong point and you lose the race.

“Everything has to fall in line, and we have the details all sorted out.”

The ability to convert is the key to another championship for Newgarden. But it won’t be easy. There is some tremendous competition from the likes of Alexander Rossi, Dixon, Pagenaud, Power, Colton Herta, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Santino Ferrucci just to name a few. Also, a talented group of rookies joins the series this season, creating an even deeper field on the grid.

Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images

“I think the pressure’s going to be similar to what you saw last year,” he said. “Really that core top five, top-six group has been pretty stable. I think you might have some new additions to jump into that, such as a Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist. I can see them having more of a complete year underneath them.

“I think sort of the typical core group, you’re always looking at Simon and Will. I know my teammates are always very, very strong. Then Dixon is always a consistent threat. Rossi, as well. I think Rossi has established himself in the conversation consistently.

“You have kind of that core group of guys that are fighting in the top five, top six, which is very tough. It’s more than just having one person to look at. Like I said, you have the intangibles of people that are very capable of just pushing into that. I think we’ll have some new guys in that conversation this year, without a doubt.”

Newgarden doesn’t turn 30 until December 22, so his best seasons may still be ahead of him. But he enters his ninth season of IndyCar competition this year and that gives this youthful driver a wealth of veteran experience.

He will need that to fend off the tremendous challenge of young talent in this year’s IndyCar Series.

“I think there’s a super-strong group,” Newgarden said. “There are a lot of teams coming in, a lot of drivers coming in nowadays that are very strong.

“I think the parity is better than it’s ever been. Really you can get plopped into any situation it seems like right now and have a good, fighting chance. There’s such a depth and talent not just from the drivers but the teams. You have good engineers, good mechanics everywhere. There are really not any bad seats anymore. That’s certainly to the benefit of the rookies coming in now to the series.

“Colton already is a young star. I think he’ll continue to be one. There’s a lot of guys you have to watch out for, try and be better than. That’s a good thing.

“The young guys push the old guys, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500