Pride, passion and pain: Josef Newgarden mulls another runner-up championship finish


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.

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.

For the second consecutive season, Josef Newgarden finished second in the IndyCar season finale and the championship standings (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“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.”

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