Newgarden surges to top in first year with Team Penske

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Josef Newgarden walked among the fans, some not recognizing him, while others were eager to wish him well as he took his next confident steps toward the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to qualify for the Honda Indy 200.

“I’m just doing what I do,” he said, humbly.

He qualified second in the No. 2 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet on July 29, then the next day, won the race to take the Verizon IndyCar Series points lead for the first time in his career. He is the first American-born driver to top the standings in more than three years.

The affable Newgarden has always been one of the more approachable drivers in the series. But by doubling his career win total to six with a series-best three victories this year in his first season driving for Roger Penske, he’s taken the next step to becoming one of the marquee drivers.

Whereas reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud needed a year with Team Penske before everything seemed to click in a dominating title run last season, Newgarden has hit the track running. And the Tennessean is just 26, which suggests he’s scraping the surface of what can be accomplished.

“I think we’re still learning,” Newgarden said. “Just us on the (No.) 2 car, we’re figuring things out. We haven’t had a perfect year by no means, but we’ve had a very good year, for sure. We’ve had races where I feel confident that we can absolutely win, and we’ve done that.

“The good thing about it is, every weekend we show up for, I feel like we can win the race. Doesn’t matter if it’s a road course, street course, oval, (I) just always feel confident we’re going to be able to win the race. I think that speaks volumes to where we’re at as a group, Team Penske as a whole, then the (No.) 2 car in general, with me coming in, being a new addition.”

His latest conquest came on Mid-Ohio’s 2.258-mile permanent road course, where he led 73 of 90 laps. And he was driving the same car that Pagenaud steered to three of the Frenchman’s series-best five wins last year.

Newgarden won his previous start this season on a street course in the Honda Indy Toronto, where he also prevailed in 2015. The other 2017 win came on a permanent road course at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, where he also won two years ago.

He proved himself on a short oval last year while driving for Ed Carpenter Racing with one of the most dominant victories in history as Newgarden led a record 282 laps in the Iowa Corn 300.

As much as he enjoyed his years driving for Carpenter and Sarah Fisher over the previous five seasons, the opportunity to drive for a Hall of Fame owner with the most prolific record in Indy cars was too much for Newgarden to pass up. In the beginning, Newgarden sounded like a kid in a candy store, gushing with awe about the enormity of the Penske operation.

Now, he sounds like a driver who can’t wait for the next race.

“We’re still gelling, though,” he said. “There’s been weekends, moments where inexperience together has hurt us. It only seems to get better week in and week out. I hope that bodes well for the future. If we keep up the momentum we have, and even get better, I hope that’s going to be the case the rest of this year and into further seasons.”

With four races remaining this season, Newgarden has a seven-point lead on teammate Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner still in search of a first series title in his 20th year of Indy car racing. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion, is third. Newgarden’s other two teammates sit fourth and fifth, respectively, in Pagenaud and 2014 series champion Will Power.

The top six contenders are separated by 58 points, which means the priority is to stay in the hunt for the next three races before the season finale, the double-points GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

“We’ve got to keep building the gap hopefully,” Newgarden said. “And maintaining it is certainly the No. 1 key, but if we can keep building the gap and increase it, that’s going to only help for Sonoma. I think that will be our goal not to have any bad races, try to build the gap, and it’s going to come down to Sonoma regardless of what happens. It’s always going to be the case with double points.

“We’ve just got to be as strong and as steady as we can and make sure that we can decide our own destiny going into Sonoma. It’s tough when you’re like 50 points behind and you have to have someone else finishing a certain position. I would like to be in a position where the winner of Sonoma wins the championship. You know, that’s a good position to be in, so if we can do that, I’ll be pretty happy.”

Newgarden finished fourth in the championship a year ago, the best of his career to date. He likes where he sits now – on top – but knows nothing has been decided.

“The lead’s not been big for anybody all year,” he said. “No one’s really broken a gap. I think it’s going to be like that until Sonoma. 

“It’s a good position to be in in the championship. I’d rather be leading than chasing.”

Newgarden takes his championship lead into the next Verizon IndyCar Series race, the ABC Supply 500, on Aug. 20 from Pocono Raceway. Live coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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