Josef Newgarden has quickly become the face of IndyCar racing in his first year with Team Penske, winning the series championship Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, becoming the first American driver to win the title since 2012 and just the second in 11 years.
Usually, there’s a transition when drivers leave one team for another, even if it is a powerhouse team like Team Penske.
Newgarden, 26, showed flashes of brilliance the past few years while driving for Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher, winning his first two career races two years ago, then winning one more last season while finishing fourth in points to get Roger Penske’s attention.
Penske brought Newgarden in to replace the retired Juan Pablo Montoya, joining stars in three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and series champions Will Power and Simon Pagenaud.
Newgarden quickly showed his potential by winning the third race of the season at Alabama and went on to win three more races, finishing second Sunday to Pagenaud, the defending series champion, to win the title by 17 points over Pagenaud.
Newgarden’s four wins this season surpassed the total (three) he won in the previous five IndyCar seasons combined. He was just starting out on his media tour Monday in San Francisco, taking a few minutes to chat about his title before making stops in New York, Nashville and Indianapolis.
“I was very proud and pleasantly surprised with how quickly we got on the same page and how quickly we hit the ground running and it was great for us as a team on the No. 2 (Verizon Chevrolet) side, but also for the whole group because we were able to contribute quickly and help elevate the whole program, which allowed us to all be so close in the championship battle,” Newgarden said of his quick start, which enabled him to give Penske his 15th series championship and third in the last four years.
Newgarden won five races for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2011 to win the Indy Lights title and was looking for that fifth win in his championship season Sunday before deciding to settle for second to come away with the title.
Newgarden said the days leading up to Sunday’s race were tense, knowing he was the frontrunner to win the title and just needed a mistake-free race to reach his goal.
“It was nerve-wracking for sure, I tried to do everything possible to just think of it as a normal race, I think that’s the best way to go about it, just treat it as business as usual since that worked for us all year and why would you do anything different,” Newgarden said.
“We knew that we had a great opportunity to win the championship as a team and we had to make sure that we succeeded in that. For us, it was hard to make sure it happened. That was a lot to orchestrate and I think everyone was tense about it, but as a team I think we executed flawlessly.”
Still, with 20 laps to go it looked like Newgarden was looking to try to pass Pagenaud for the win.
“Tim (Cindric), my strategist and the president of the team, had to reign me in a bit on the timing stand,” Newgarden said. “I think he understands my aggression at times and my eagerness to always attack, but whenever I get going a little too much he always reigns me back in and makes me think of the big picture and that’s what happened there.
“It worked out well, he got me on the right track for thinking and we got there in the end. It was tough, though, because I was going against my natural instincts. That’s why I think people saw some mild aggression on my part to get by him because it was something naturally that I would do, but I had to switch my thinking, just stop that and focus on playing at the safe side.”
It was Pagenaud’s second win of the season. He won five races last year to win the title.
“I’m so proud of my guys on the No. 1 car, I felt we represented it really well, but overall it’s a team effort and I’m very glad for him,” Pagenaud said in a Victory Lane interview Sunday. “I think he’s going to be a tremendous champion. He’s an American, which is great for the sport. He’s a kid and he’s very smart already.”