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Can Josef Newgarden take his second straight INDYCAR title?

August 24, 2018

 

Newgarden mug

It will be tough for Josef Newgarden to repeat as Verizon IndyCar Series champion in 2018, but it won’t be impossible.

The Tennesseean already has three victories to his count for the season, which is winding down with the second of three straight contests – Pocono, Gateway, Portland – in three weeks. Newgarden has won at ISM (formerly Phoenix) Raceway’s mile oval, on the confining road course at Barber Motorsports Park and at every Indy car driver’s favorite circuit, Road America’s permanent road course.

Now, despite not testing on the 1.25 Gateway Motorsports Park, Newgarden and Team Penske return to a site where they were victorious in 2017, catapulting 27-year-old Newgarden to his first possession of INDYCAR’s Astor Cup, emblematic of the champion. For the short period Newgarden’s been racing in the IndyCar Series, he’s accumulated a total of 10 victories, seven with Team Penske and the balance with Sarah Fisher’s team.

Newgarden had a mid-season malaise, not performing to his personal satisfaction in the two races at Indianapolis (11th in the road course race; eighth at the 102nd Indianapolis 500). In the two Detroit contests he was ninth and 15th, while he took a 13th-place result in Texas. From there all finishes have been in the single digits, including a fifth-place result, one lap down at Pocono last weekend.

Newgarden action

Gateway will be Newgarden’s 115th Indy car start. He’s looking forward to the possibility of going back-to-back on the St. Louis-adjacent oval. In only one visit to this track as reconstituted the pole and race winner have both come from Team Penske: Will Power won pole for the race and Josef Newgarden took the race win. Newgarden, 66 points behind Scott Dixon and trailing last weekend’s winner Alexander Rossi by 37, is glad to be back on a racetrack after last weekend’s difficult event in Pocono, where Robert Wickens suffered significant injuries, his accident causing a near-2-hour delay in the proceedings.

“The quicker you get back to the track, the better,” Newgarden said. “I think that’s just always been the case with drivers. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. Wickens would want to do the same thing, I would think. I think it’s what brings us a lot of comfort, is going back to our job and our passion. What race car drivers are good at is compartmentalizing. You’ve got to focus on the task at hand when you’re on the racetrack. I don’t think you’re able to do your job if you can’t compartmentalize.”

With his success earlier in the season at ISM Raceway, Newgarden thinks the new aero kit, UAK18 has turned out to have a good short-oval package. “I think you can confidently say 80 or 90 percent of the events we go to this year, it’s been a perfect new aero package. Now I think we need some improvement on the super speedways, I think we need to be a little bit better. But the short oval package has been really, really good and I think it’s really just down to the configuration of the wings, the downforce levels, the work that Firestone has done with the tires, everything INDYCAR has done, it’s really worked out.”

Although the Penske team elected not to test at Gateway, Newgarden isn’t thinking that will be an issue. “I’ve got to hope that it’s going to be like Phoenix, which was an improved show. It’s a nighttime race, like Phoenix, so I am hoping it’s going to race like Phoenix. But I don’t know yet,” he advised.

Always an aggressive racer, Newgarden will be on the attack Saturday night when the Bommarito 500 takes place. He knows he’s got some ground to make up, even though the championship chase is pretty darn close. And he knows there’s 100 points on offer in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, so the closer he can get to Dixon and Rossi, the better it’ll be for him in the quest to repeat and claim the No. 1 car number for another year.

“I’ve always just liked being in the attack mode. Last year I think we were pretty aggressive even when we were down in the championship and when we got in the lead we were aggressive. We kind of just stayed on it. My approach hasn’t really been different. I think if we were in the lead, we’d be attacking. That’s always my preferred way to go about it. I think Dixon, particularly, is probably going to be more safe and conventional in the way he runs. But I don’t think you’ll get that from a guy like Rossi. I think those guys will try and attack as much as Will and I will.”

The 248-lap Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline takes the green flags Saturday night, August 25 at 8PM. Weather is iffy for Friday – at this time – but looks good for race day. NBCSN is the broadcast partner.

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit

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