MONTEREY, California – Josef Newgarden walked into the media center for the final postrace interview of the 2022 IndyCar season as if he were in a trance.
To make matters worse, he arrived early, while rival team owner Bobby Rahal and driver Christian Lundgaard were finishing a news conference about Lundgaard’s 2022 IndyCar Rooke of the Year title.
Newgarden looked worn out. He gave everything he had behind the wheel of his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet at Team Penske in an attempt to win Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey and, conceivably, the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.
A mistake and a spin in the Corkscrew during Saturday’s qualifications put him in a deep hole. He started 25th but quickly passed cars as if they were sitting still.
“I was just old-school driving,” Newgarden said. “I was going back to junior days. What happens, happens. I’m just going as hard as I can.”
On Lap 46, he passed teammate and championship leader Will Power for second place. If Newgarden could win the race, and Power finished outside the podium, Newgarden could have a shot at the championship.
But race winner Alex Palou was untouchable, opening an insurmountable gap to second place Newgarden.
Palou’s No. 10 Honda crossed the finish line 30.382 seconds ahead of Newgarden’s Chevy. Power was third and clinched his second NTT IndyCar Series championship by 16 points.
Newgarden considers himself a perfectionist. He drove a nearly perfect race, but in his mind, never should have made the mistake in qualifications that forced him to start 25th in the 26-car field at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
P25 ➡️ P2
We did everything we could on Sunday, ride along with me for every overtake on my @youtube! Link is below. Video drops at 6pm ET!https://t.co/XSQqo5WxE4@team_penske // @teamchevy // @Hitachi_US // @indycar // #INDYCAR pic.twitter.com/VkllaVRRRW
— Josef Newgarden (@josefnewgarden) September 13, 2022
When Newgarden took his seat alongside Palou in the postrace interview, his eyes looked forward as if he were a million miles away as Palou discussed his only victory in the 2022 season.
One only could guess what Newgarden was thinking. At one point, he lowered his head and rubbed his eyes.
This is the pain that comes with finishing second in the IndyCar Series championship for the third year in a row. It’s also the pain that comes with winning four more races than the series champion in 2022 – five wins to Power’s one.
But Power had nine podium finishes, and Newgarden had six.
“We just needed to have a more consistent season,” Newgarden lamented. “There’s no doubt. I think that the peak performance was there all year. We just didn’t have the consistency. That ultimately is what put us in an unfavorable position when we came here.
“If we can clean that up, I have no doubt we can challenge for the championship again next year.”
Newgarden joined Team Penske in 2017 and was an instant success as he won the championship his first year with the team. Two years later, Newgarden had another championship in 2019.
Since that championship, Newgarden has been the strongest closer in IndyCar, but he could grab the championship away from the leader. In 2020, Scott Dixon built a huge lead early in a pandemic-impacted season where the schedule featured doubleheaders at most venues and three races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in order to have a full season.
Newgarden charged hard at the end of that year and won the season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida, but Dixon won the championship by 16 points.
Entering the 2021 season finale in Long Beach, Newgarden was third in points behind Palou and Pato O’Ward. After openly wondering why he was part of a championship contender prerace media event, Newgarden raced to a second-place finish as O’Ward crashed on Lap 43. Palou finished fourth and won the championship by 38 points over Newgarden.
Sunday at Laguna Seca, he finished 16 points behind Power on another strong closing performance.
“Well, we tried today for sure,” Newgarden said. “We gave our best, as we always do. Alex was tough to catch today. I think he just was incredible, particularly on the last couple stints. He did a really amazing job. It was going to be hard to get to him.
“We got all the way to second, we just need one more spot, but Alex seemed a little out of reach today. So tremendous job by them.
“I’m happy we were able to fight back to where we did. It was a tough day, and we knew we had to fight. Ultimately, we’ve come up short in this championship. We’ve got to be in a different position next year and fight a lot harder so that we can hopefully be in a much more favorable position coming into this weekend, and I believe we can do that.
“It’s been a really tough year. It’s been good in a lot of ways, but it’s also been really negative in a lot of others. I’m excited for a reset, excited to come back next year, and I know we’ve got the team to do the job.”
With pain comes pride. There was no reason Newgarden couldn’t help but be proud of his effort, but an eighth at Portland on Sept. 4 followed by his spin and failure to advance out of the first round of qualifications at Laguna Seca were extremely costly in a quest for a championship.
“I think it’s a different day if you start on pole for sure,” Newgarden said. “That gives us a very different picture. We’re going to run a different race and we’re going to run it from no deficit. We started this race last, so we started at a big deficit.
“It’s hard to predict. If we didn’t have the deficit, I don’t know if we would have had enough to beat this guy (Palou) today. He was stellar, and there’s no doubt about it, so I don’t want to marginalize what he did.
“But it’s a different day when you start first. We wouldn’t have had that deficit to make up.
“I don’t know how that would have turned out. I don’t know if it would have kind of changed (Power’s) program. Really, we win the pole, we win the day, all I need is for Power to finish fourth, and that seems pretty doable.
“Ultimately, the spin was almost the nail in the coffin this weekend. It just was. We didn’t need that to happen. It was such a silly thing to happen, too. It wasn’t some grandiose problem. There’s one curb you don’t want to touch, and I accidentally touched it, and it created a big issue.
“Yeah, hard to say how it would have come out if we had put the thing on pole, but I would rather have done that and seen what happened than have to come from the back today.”
Newgarden was proud of the effort from his team. He offered congratulations to Power’s championship crew, because as they say at Team Penske, “A win for one car is a win for all of us.”
“Obviously we’re all competitive, and we want to personally be the winners, but when we win as a team, it is big for everybody,” Newgarden said. “I’m filled with a lot of pride.
“But I’m also filled with a little bit of a relief. I’m kind of happy to come into this offseason reset, recharge, and then figure out a way to just hit everybody harder next year, and I know we can do that.
“The other overwhelming positive in my mind is I know we can do better than this year. I just know we can. When we put it together, I’m just telling you, just watch out, because when we put it together, it’s going to be big.”
In a sense, Newgarden has to feel proud about his effort. He gave everything he had, squeezed every last ounce of effort he could behind the wheel and pushed the race car as hard as it could go, only to see the winning driver disappear in the distance and his championship hope fade away.
“That was everything I had today,” Newgarden said. “We were short ultimately to Alex. We’re going to have to reassess and figure out how we make ourselves a little bit better to the deficit that we had to Alex in those last couple stints. I’ve got some ideas already, and I think if we were going to run this race again, I already know what we’d try, and if we start up further then that changes the game, too. I’m hopeful for another shot.
“As far as what we put together today, that was everything we had.”