It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and Josef Newgarden looks set on seizing it.
The 26-year-old Tennessean joined Team Penske following an adventurous 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series campaign that saw him capture one win and four podiums en route to fourth in the championship standings – finishing, oddly enough, behind the Penske trio of Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves who are now his teammates.
Some comparisons are drawn to Newgarden and Pagenaud, who won the Astor Cup in his second season with the organization after finishing 11th in the standings in year one with Team Penske. Newgarden doesn’t foresee that happening in his opening stint in the No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet.
“Simon is an interesting case because, if you look back at it, Simon didn't actually have that terrible of a year in a lot of respects,” Newgarden said. “The results weren't what they wanted. They'd finished outside the top 10 in the championship (in 2015). When you look at it just from those particular numbers, then it wasn't a good season.
“But from a speed standpoint, Simon didn't struggle the first year. It wasn't like he struggled for speed, so that wasn't the missing ingredient. So I'm hoping that's not a problem in the transition. I don't foresee it being a problem.
“In Simon's, for instance, they had to build a new team (to add a fourth car for the season). He's talked about the difficulty of them having to add a team, different people. Sure, he brought over (Ben) Bretzman, his engineer, so that was his continuity for him, but there were some other elements that weren't continuity. So that's his own case.”
Newgarden’s transition went quite well in the Feb. 10-11 open test at Phoenix Raceway for all full-season entries. He was the fastest of the Team Penske quartet on the speed chart and third overall for the weekend.
“With me, it's going to be a different ball of wax (than with Pagenaud),” said Newgarden, who replaces Juan Pablo Montoya. “I've got an existing team I'm going to start working with on the (No.) 2 car program. They've been there and they've been in place for a while, so that shouldn't be as big of a shuffle from the team side. It's going to be more me learning how the team operates, gelling with my engineer (Brian Campe) very quickly. That's going to be the biggest difference for me is a new engineer, and then we'll see how it pans out.
“But I think if there was anything to learn from Simon's (experience), the team is kind of prepared to not let that happen again. It’s hard to predict how it's going to go. I don't think anyone could predict how Simon's season went. Simon could have had a great first season and it ended up working out in the second one. But for us is it going to work out in the first season? I don't know. I think all signs point that we could have a very good start to the season.”
Having come from smaller, sometimes single-car efforts in his five previous Verizon IndyCar Series seasons (with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, CFH Racing and, most recently, Ed Carpenter Racing), the three-time race winner was forced to learn his own way around a race car much of the time. But the team environment at Team Penske is likely to bring something entirely new point of view for both parties.
“Well, I think from my side, I bring a different perspective,” Newgarden said. “My perspective is probably similar to what Simon brought in his time. We were in similar situations, I would say, in that we were predominantly a one-car team for the last four or five years, and with that comes a unique learning environment.
“You kind of learn your own way of how you want to do things. I've learned through my own experiences how I want certain things in the car, how I approach a race weekend, and I've learned that with the ECR group, the SFHR group, the CFH group, whatever you want to name them, it's all pretty much the same group. But I've learned that in a one-car environment for the most part, and so when you go to Team Penske, they have an environment where it's very team-inspired. Everyone works together. I think that's what their strength is.”
Newgarden will also benefit from having Team Penske president Tim Cindric calling his race strategy. Cindric moves to the No. 2 pit stand after calling races for Will Power, including the 2014 championship season.
Having options of different views moving forward is something Newgarden said would be “enlightening,” and that both he and the team are bringing the same thing to the table for 2017 and beyond.
“Now when I come in, I might look at something completely different than they've ever looked at it and vice-versa,” Newgarden said. “They've looked at things differently than I've ever looked at it and are exposed to things I've never seen before. But it's always enlightening. It's always refreshing for either the team side or the driver side to see a different perspective on whether it's the way you run a race weekend, the way you run a session, the way you communicate or the way you like to drive the race car or the way you prefer the setup of the car.
“I think I'm going to bring that difference and that unique experience as they're going to bring to me. It's going to be the same thing.”
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend March 10-12. Ticket information is available at gpstpete.com. The race airs live March 12 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (noon ET).