As speculation about his racing future continued to intensify around the paddock, Josef Newgarden knew he wanted to get away after the conclusion to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
“I’m going to be in Hawaii all next week,” Newgarden said before finishing sixth in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 18. “I’m totally off the grid. I’m gone.”
The 25-year-old Ed Carpenter Racing driver is well aware of rampant rumors that assert he will land a ride with Team Penske, the most successful operation in Indy car history. While Newgarden is known for his fun-loving personality and engaging nature, he was noticeably hesitant to say anything to fuel the conversation.
“I just hope I have a ride,” he said, though he knows that’s not in question.
Team owner Ed Carpenter has made his strongest pitch to keep Newgarden, but acknowledged in recent months he can’t prevent his rising star driver from leaving should Team Penske come calling. Owner Roger Penske usually lands drivers he covets. He’s made a Hall of Fame career out of spotting talent and getting the most out of it. Example A is Simon Pagenaud, who, in his second season with Team Penske, celebrated the 2016 championship a week ago at Sonoma Raceway after winning his season-high fifth race of the season.
Team Penske finished 1-2-3 in the points with Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves. Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, who have a combined five Indianapolis 500 wins, are at the end of their contracts. When asked about a NBCSN pre-race report that Montoya was convinced he was driving his final race for Team Penske at Sonoma, Penske and president Tim Cindric said driver decisions would be determined in the next month.
There’s a lot to like about Newgarden, the fifth-year Verizon IndyCar Series driver who finished a career-best fourth in points this season. He’s young and talented, the winner of three races in the past two seasons. He drove the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet to one of the most dominant victories of the year in July’s Iowa Corn 330, and it came about one month after he suffered a broken right clavicle and hand in a Firestone 600 crash at Texas Motor Speedway.
“To come back from (Texas) and win at Iowa was just unreal. I mean, unreal,” said James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “Super happy for him. That kid has got a bright future in this series. He’s so driven. You talk to him, he’s one of those super-focused, super-driven young guys. Winning is what keeps him here.”
Four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing has admired Newgarden’s continual growth, particularly how Newgarden quickly learns from and doesn’t repeat mistakes.
“He’s a great kid, a great personality, which motor racing these days is about a lot of things, not just being good in a car,” Dixon said. “I think we’ve seen from Day 1 he’s always been fast. As he’s matured, I think he’s really absorbed things well, his race craft has gotten better, he’s winning more often. He’s covering all bases now, whether it’s a fuel strategy race or straight-up speed.
“It’s fun to see guys like him evolve and it’s good for the sport. A young guy, American, that’s important, and he’s going to be a hot commodity, that’s for sure.”
Newgarden credited engineer Jeremy Milless and his Carpenter team for improving upon last year’s seventh-place championship finish. Aside from the Iowa win, Newgarden had a realistic chance to win the Indy 500 for the first time: He finished third after qualifying second, both career bests.
“Indy was probably the biggest gain,” Newgarden said. “We learned about some mistakes last year that we made as a group. We ended up taking the knowledge and having a great 2016 Indy and having a shot at winning it. And this year, we had another shot at finishing top three in the championship. We had that shot last year, too, even a shot at winning it.”
If Newgarden decides to leave Carpenter, it will be an emotional decision.
“Ed is a fantastic owner,” Newgarden said. “We have a unique relationship from my side. We’re teammates, we’re friends, we’re workout partners. We’re a lot of things, more than just team owner and driver. He’s been a great owner to me. He does a really good job of looking out for everyone on the team and trying to see the whole picture. He’s gone above and beyond for me as far as what a driver could ask for. There’s really been nothing missing there. I’ve had a great opportunity working with him.”
Before the Sonoma race, Carpenter alluded to what could happen, but said he wouldn’t waste energy planning for that possibility.
“I feel like we’re going to be in a good position if we have to cross that bridge,” Carpenter said. “We’ve done enough as a team that we’re a desirable destination and that we’ll have good options. That’s another reason I’m not overly worried about it. The dominos will kind of sort themselves out.
“Whoever is driving our cars, with and alongside me, we’ll be prepared to continue being a factor in this series.”
Everyone sounds well aware about the possible winds of change blowing through the INDYCAR paddock.
“The offseason is going to get pretty interesting with people moving on,” said Dixon, who signed a long-term contract with Chip Ganassi last year. “My first thought is I’m happy I’m not involved in it.”