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 NBCSports.com. “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.
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.
“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.”