Captain’s Corner: Interview with IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden
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Josef Newgarden, Team Penske’s 15th IndyCar champion, has been a busy man. He always is, but there has been a whirlwind of obligations since he crossed the finish line second in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to clinch the Verizon IndyCar Series title in his sixth season at this level, but in his very first year with Penske-Chevrolet.
Right after seeing the checkered flag, there were, of course, obligations for NBCSN and RTV6. Then, following the multitude of official pictures for Penske’s many loyal sponsors along with the #2 crew, proud Captain, Mr. Roger Penske, and team president (also Newgarden's strategist) Tim Cindric – and the unofficial improvised selfies with race engineer Brian Campe and every other person who shared his joy – JoNew headed to Sonoma Raceway’s media center for IndyCar’s official press conference. His achievement had sunk in by now, because he was in precisely the situation he’d hoped to be ever since grabbing the lead in the championship with victory at Mid-Ohio on July 30. But now the adrenaline was starting to ebb a little… at least until he hit the post-race party at Penske hospitality.
The next day, tired as he was, Newgarden’s eloquence and happiness were transmitted via various San Francisco media outlets as well as KTVU, then over brunch at Pier 39 before he crossed America to spend time with Sirius XM, Players Tribune, Spoon University, NASCAR on NBC, CNN, SportsCenter… And then there was the trip to his native hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee, where Mayor Jamie Clary declared Sept. 20, 2017, as Josef Newgarden Day.
But at 10.30am ET on Wednesday, just before he heads to his home state and little more than 60 hours after the greatest achievement of his career, this usually indefatigable 26-year-old is sounding less than ebullient and his tone has a hint of the late Leonard Cohen. As always in interviews though, his mind is up to speed. The guy who IndyCar once used in marketing to perform such nonsense as the Harlem Shake or who would feature in promo slots to the soundtrack of the excellent Snoop Dogg/Wiz Khalifa track Young, Wild & Free, can also be as introspective and reflective as his most savant rivals.
Reminding him of his scorching pole lap at Sonoma – only the second of his career and his first with Team Penske – injects him with some energy. That record-setting performance seemed like a clear case of Newgarden deciding beforehand that attack was the best form of defense. It was also a useful psychological message to send all his title rivals – the Watkins Glen raceday pitlane blunder had emphatically not scared him into taking a cautious approach to the season finale.
“Yeah, I risked it all that lap!” says Josef. “I needed to get as high up the grid as possible, but I didn’t think that pole was going to happen. Looking back, I think that was crucial to dictating how the race was going to flow. If we’d started fourth, it would have been much harder to dictate.
“And yeah, for sure it showed that if being aggressive is what was needed, then that’s what we were going to be. And in doing so, it meant I could be less aggressive in the race. If we’d decided to be less aggressive in qualifying and only been fourth on the grid, the last of the Team Penske cars, then I’d have needed to take more risks in the race. So it seemed a good risk to take – going all out for pole.”
Talking of risks… teammate Simon Pagenaud’s victory over Newgarden on raceday lifted the Frenchman to just 13 points behind the American’s final points tally. That sheds a very interesting retrospective light over their Gateway confrontation, in which Newgarden’s rub-and-run pass – surely this IndyCar season’s most memorable moment – saw the #1 car drop to third place. Pagenaud lost 15 points that night, and Newgarden gained an extra 10.
“You can flip it in every way,” says Newgarden cautiously, well aware that he’s talking about a teammate who made no attempt to hide his chagrin in the aftermath at St. Louis. “You can say that helped decide the title, but if Gateway had been different and I’d finished second, then that means I may have approached Watkins Glen differently. And it would have changed Sonoma, too: if Simon had been closer in points, I’d have done more to try and prevent him from winning the race last weekend.
“But yeah, I do think Gateway was a very important piece to the puzzle of helping us secure the championship.”
After taking the lead of the championship in late July, Newgarden had to deal with the same question from several media outlets – When you signed for Penske, did you expect to be in this position, defending the lead in the championship with just a few rounds to go in your first year with the team? His modest reply was along the lines of, I hoped to be but I didn’t expect it.
The question actually betrayed what many observers had felt: while not questioning his pace and ability, we suspected his flaws might be exposed. Yes, he had five years of IndyCar experience behind him, but now he was joining one of history’s greatest racing teams to be directly compared with three teammates who’d amassed two championships and 67 race wins between them. With just three victories to his name – the same tally that Helio Castroneves has in the Indy 500 alone – Josef was bound to initially overreach himself on a few too many occasions. Before earning a title, he’d have to calm his fervor, adapt to the mythologized ‘Penske Way’ of doing things and was therefore highly unlikely to become champion in his first season in The Captain's crew.
What the hell did we know? In fact, Newgarden did himself great credit by playing himself in cautiously, picking up a lucky win at Barber, and then proving very consistent and increasingly aggressive. It’s his misfortune, in fact, that this generally smart approach actually served to highlight his two major errors – clattering into the barrier on pitlane at Watkins Glen, and the wild moment at Texas Motor Speedway in June, when he attempted to go three-wide, around 50 laps from home, and slithered into the wall.
That TMS faux-pas was one of the lowest moments of the year, he admits, but maybe not for the reasons one expects. Cindric didn’t tear into him, nor did the #2 crew members give him the stink-eye.
“You’re under a higher level of scrutiny in this situation,” he says, “and after a mistake like that, you get looked at that way you feel when your parents are disappointed in you. ‘We’re not mad at you – we’re just disappointed’ – you know? They’re not mean about it … and that almost makes you feel worse! Cindric was too nice about it – ‘I don’t need to tell you that was dumb, because I know that you know that was dumb!’ – and he was aware I’d have to think about it until the next race.”
That next race was Road America where Newgarden was fastest of the Penske quartet on the Sunday, and could have done precious little to prevent Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon zapping past him on the final restart. That runner-up finish was followed by a sixth place at Iowa and a win at Toronto, when he wasn’t the fastest Penske driver on the day. He was brought to pitlane just in time to see a full-course caution fall which consigned teammates Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves, both yet to stop, to the back of the field. It was a slightly lucky break for Newgarden, but pitting as soon as the fuel window opened was a tactic Cindric had learned from bitter experience. He’d seen his drivers hosed by yellow flag periods at the Canadian streetcourse while making good fuel mileage and running long. So in 2016, he’d called Will Power in early and won him the race, and repeated the trick in ’17 to win it for Newgarden.
Josef needed to make no apologies for his third win, at Mid-Ohio. On Lap 13, seeking to pass Power for the lead, he hit the push-to-pass boost exiting Turn 3 for the long straight down to Turn 4; Power’s crew warned the 2014 champ and he responded in identical fashion, so Newgarden came off the button… And then, crucially, went back on it, zapping his teammate down the inside, long before turn-in to the right-hander.
“The changes to the push-to-pass this year, where the driver chooses when to turn it off, has made it way more tactical,” says Newgarden, “whereas before this season, your boosts were defined as 12 or 15sec each, and once you’d used one it was gone. Now you have a maximum of 200 seconds or whatever, and it’s totally up to the driver in how to use it. That gives you a chance to try and outsmart the others.”
If Power was mad at himself for being tricked, he was equally mad at Esteban Gutierrez whose Dale Coyne Racing entry sat between Newgarden and himself for the race’s one and only restart, 20 laps from the end. Despite still needing to make a final stop, the ex-Formula 1 driver, rather than move over for Power, tried to outbrake Newgarden and get back on the lead lap! Not so much a buffer for the leader, Gutierrez’s locked wheel under braking suggested he might instead become a bowling ball.
“Yeah, I was massively concerned that he would try something,” says Josef, “although thankfully Tim had given me a heads-up. Plus I was on black tires and Will was on reds, so I had to get my tires back up to temperature as well as watching my mirrors. At Road America, I’d thought that maybe I could have done a better job on my restart to defend from Dixon, so I really didn’t want to lose another race at the last minute…”
No need to worry, Newgarden kept his head and kept his lead, and his victory pushed him to the top of the points table, where he’d remain for the balance of the season. After finishing second to Power at Pocono, scoring the aforementioned win at Gateway, and despite being classified only 18th at The Glen, Newgarden arrived in Sonoma holding a three-point lead in the championship over Dixon.
Considering what had happened to both of them in the Indy 500, the other double-points race in the season – Newgarden 19th after a late crash, Dixon 32nd after the mother-and-father of all crashes in the early stages – it seemed strange that they should be the primary title fighters with one race to go. Especially considering another Penske driver, Pagenaud, had finished every single lap of the season.
“Yeah, the Indy 500 shunt was a huge whammy,” agrees Newgarden, “but the problems started at the GP Indy where we had a pitlane speed-limiter glitch, so we did three drive-throughs because we couldn’t figure out what was going on. We lost a podium there, maybe second place, and finished outside the Top 10. Then we were only 22nd in qualifying for the 500, so we lost a bunch of points there [Indy qualifying awards a huge number of points, so polesitter Dixon received 42, Newgarden 12]. And then getting caught up in that accident in the race…
“So just from the #2’s standpoint, the Month of May was absolutely terrible. Just a fifth or sixth at Indy would have meant we were in a points position at Watkins Glen where it would have been almost a no-brainer to just consolidate and go for ninth or 10th, and that would have meant Sonoma was no problem.”
Preseason, Newgarden expressed a modicum of concern over how Team Penske as a unit sets up its cars, that something didn’t entirely mesh with the style he’d developed at Ed Carpenter Racing for the Chevrolet aerokits. As top Penske driver in qualifying for the season’s final two rounds, Newgarden appears to be getting on top of that problem and that’s vital, going forward. However much easier it may be to run close and pass with the 2018 aerokits, grid position will still play a huge role in race outcomes on road and street courses.
“Getting my first pole for Penske at Sonoma, it was good to check that off the list,” he says. “I feel our tire strategies were too conservative at times this year, so I think we could have got a couple more poles before that. Actually, I thought Sonoma was shaping up to be another one where we missed out, because we were the only one [of the Penske cars] who didn’t have a set of brand-new reds left to use in Q3. Thankfully it worked out.
“But back to your point, yeah, I have gotten more comfortable with the way the cars are from a pure ‘feel’ standpoint so that’s been the biggest change. I’ve learned more about the setup philosophy, as well, so I have gotten better at each specific track knowing what I need for those last adjustments.
“I hope that will carry over to the cars once they have the new aerokits – I think it will do, to a degree.”
Even though Newgarden will have to adapt again to the 2018 cars, so too, will everyone else. And what must alarm his rivals is that there are a lot of other things he certainly can ‘carry over’ from his title-winning year. Like, for instance, his ability to learn from mistakes, and his confidence to lay it all on the line in qualifying, even when he’s heading into the most important race of his career.
Remember, Josef is still only 26 and could have another 15 years in IndyCar, driving for one of the two best teams in the sport. If he’s already making so few errors, and is already quick and aggressive enough to win the championship, what more might he achieve? Surely he’s only going to become yet more formidable as a competitor.
“Well, that’s what we hope,” he says. “Certainly, among the #2 team, we can see a lot of room for improvement, and if that’s the case then I’d like to think we can look forward to more good things next year.”
And beyond, sir. Wayyyy beyond.
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