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IndyCar Indianapolis 500

Josef Newgarden breaks down the wild last laps of his Indy 500 victory

In an interview with Motorsport, Newgarden dives into his game plan, the moment he didn’t want to lead the race, and what ran through his mind during his two-lap war with O’Ward.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, Borg-Warner Trophy

“It's been 48 hours and I'm tired,” says Josef Newgarden when I ask how he's been since winning the 108th Indianapolis 500. We’re in a 38th-floor hotel conference room looking out onto the Empire State Building, the sun is shining, and he’s on day one of a whirlwind NYC media tour. “I don't want to say [there’s a] downside to winning the Indy 500. But you win this race and, man, you're busy. It's tiresome. But it's a good problem to have.”

He’s looking forward to having dinner at a reasonable hour with his wife, and then getting back to the IndyCar season—which, coincidentally, may be the toughest part of the Indy 500 comedown. “I haven't slept much and I'm just trying to get myself back into the regular-season thought process,” Newgarden explains. Winning Indy is a triumph, but there’s more than half the season to go.

But before I let him get back to dinner plans, or battling for a title (he’s in seventh, 21 points behind championship leader Alex Palou), or moving past the fallout of the Penske team’s cheating scandal (“We're a team that's moving forward and we're doing it together—and I think the Indy 500 really cements that for us”), I want him to go backwards. Because those last two laps, with Newgarden and Pato O’Ward trading places twice after a race marked by a long rain delay and eight yellow flags, turned into a last-minute shootout for the ages. I want to hear what it was like, in something like realtime, for Newgarden to find himself, 198 laps in, with the Indy 500 on the line and the clock running down. 

Here, in Newgarden’s words, are how he managed to do just that, the moment he didn’t want to lead the race, the drivers he thought he’d actually be battling, and his two-lap war with O’Ward.

Break down how you come into Indy 500. Was it the same plan as last year?

We went into this year's Indy 500 with a very similar plan to 2023. Last year, I went into the racethinking that we had a race winning car. I could utilize it in all the ways I needed to throughout the race, which really gives you the most confidence to attack the race. I thought we had that exact same race car this year, if not a little bit better, which gave us confidence to execute. If you get it just right, you might have an opportunity at the end.

Do you have a trade secret for winning the Indy 500?

There's a method to it. The way we race, the style of cars—there's a method to the way you win this thing. Like, I'm not egotistical, but I've seen the method for a while. It's all about positioning. People just assume, "Oh, you just have to be in position at the end." That's true. But you have to position yourself throughout different parts of the race. 

We're going to talk about that last few laps in a moment, but before then: did you feel like you had run the race you were hoping to? 

I think people, when they watch the Indy 500, they think it's just the very end—but there's so much work that you do throughout the entire race. The first 100 laps was sort of its own story: there were a lot of cautions, a lot of pent-up driving exuberance. There's people who are maybe a little bit too erratic. I think we were doing a really good job of just staying in that top bubble—that top-five positioning that you need to be in for the first half. And then things started changing rapidly for the second 100 laps. 

Finally around lap 110 or 115 we cycled to the lead. And that was a point where no one wanted to lead. I was trying to slow down and get people back around me, and no one wanted to lead. No one would go back by me, even when I was driving at, you know, 205 miles per hour. 

"I really thought in the final sequence it was going to be me and Scott Dixon. And then I thought it was going to be me and Alexander Rossi. And then it ended up becoming Pato." 

And then from the 150-lap point, we're in that top four. And then it turns into the final pitstop sequence, and the final pitstop sequence is really going to set you up for the run to the finish. Fortunately, we came out right in the lead group, working with the top guys, trying to understand, okay, where are we going to be? At what time [are we] coming to the line? And that leads to the exact moment where you're going to have a shootout with somebody. 

I think it's impossible to predict exactly what you need to do at the right moment. But I felt confident that we had a shot to win the race, [and] we had a car that could win the race. So if timing comes our way, if circumstance comes our way, then then it could be our debt. 

Watch: Indy 500: Newgarden beats O’Ward for back-to-back wins

That takes us up to those last two laps. You’re running right behind Pato. How are you thinking, in that moment, about what you're going to do?

So this final two laps, it was interesting that it became a fight between me and Pato. I really thought in the final sequence it was going to be me and Scott Dixon. And then I thought it was going to be me and Alexander Rossi. And then it ended up becoming Pato. 

Leading up to those final two laps, you're just trying to study where your competitor’s good, where they're weak, how they get runs off of each corner. What Pato did to me leading into the final lap was exactly what I wanted to do to him. I think we probably had similar notes. 

And I thought, if I pass Pato on the front straightaway at the final lap, I think he’ll have a tough time regaining momentum—to get back by me before the line. So he passes me, you know, coming to the white flag and my immediate thought is: well, I've just got to gather my momentum better than he could and get a good run off of Turn 2 and not wait until Turn 4. And when I do get it, I have to take it—whether it's good or it's bad. I think you just have to take whatever run you can. And fortunately, I had just good enough of a run that we were able to clear him on the outside of Turn 3.

Did you know when you cleared him that it was going to stick?

I had no idea when I went past Pato that it was gonna stick for the win. [It was] a high-risk maneuver. I had a pretty good run on him. I would have liked a little better run so that I could have cleared him before the corner. It was tough because he was breaking the draft for most of the straightaway—I couldn't quite close on him as quickly as a normal lap. 

But when I went to pop to the outside of turn three, I knew for sure we were going to enter too wide. And if I stayed in it, the momentum was going to carry me probably to the center of the corner ahead of him. At that point, it was really just trying to calculate how much room I had to give him till we got to the apex. And whenever you do a move like that with anybody, there's always the potential for disaster, where you just touch at the wrong moment—either I wreck or we both wreck together. 

I think a lot of the reason it worked was because I was racing someone like Pato. He raced me as hard as he could, but he also raced me incredibly cleanly. I think Pato is one of the best drivers that you can run against in this series, where you're going to push each other to the limit, but you're going to give each other enough racing room to make it work. So I went into the corner thinking, “Okay, I'm gonna go for it. I know, I have to clear him by the apex. And I'm going to try and give him just enough room to and it's either going to work out or it's not.”

Newgarden taking the checkered flag

Newgarden taking the checkered flag

Photo by: Jake Galstad

So there's some gentleman's racing, to some degree. You can trust him. 

Yeah, there was definitely trust between both Pato and I. Look, none of us are gonna give an inch, you know? We're gonna push each other to the absolute limit—but you're not going to go over it. And I give Pato a lot of respect for that. He's one of the fiercest competitors that I've ever raced in this series. He gives you enough room to work with as a racing driver. And I've tried to do the same to him. 

You know, I'm not always perfect. I've definitely had my mistakes. But I certainly tried to give him just enough racing room so that we can make it on the other side. He did that for us in this moment. So, you know, he's a big reason why this was such a great race at the end.

What was the most nerve-racking moment you went through in those last two laps?

The toughest part about this race at the finish was understanding what to do at what moment. When [Pato] made his move on the final lap, it was what I wanted to do as well—it was the exact same decision-making process. Even when he went back by me, I didn't know what the right thing to do was. You just have to make the best decision you can within the moment, and hope that it falls your way. We had good timing and we had a fast car. And fortunately, within that final sequence, it just came our way. The game plan worked.

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