Josef Newgarden admits winning the Verizon IndyCar Series championship didn’t sink in immediately after finishing second in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17.
That result delivered Newgarden his first championship in his initial season with Team Penske, prevailing by 13 points over teammate Simon Pagenaud. Still, the pinch-me moment came a few minutes later, when he climbed from his No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet and was surrounded by media, teammates and family.
“When we crossed the finish line at Sonoma, I knew we had gotten it done,” said Newgarden, who just completed his sixth Verizon IndyCar Series season. “We had talked about it on the radio. It wasn’t in that moment. It wasn’t until I got interviewed and I got out of the car, saw my family.
“You think about all of the work that goes in and all the effort goes in, that’s when it really hit me. I wanted to start bawling like a baby at that point. But I tried to hold everything back and make sure I got through the interview.”
Newgarden encountered another surreal championship moment Thursday when he visited the lobby of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway administration building, expecting to conduct a few media interviews. Instead, he was surprised by seeing the media -- and nearly the entire IMS staff -- in the lobby to honor his title.
That celebration reminded Newgarden of the place he wants to enjoy his next life-changing moment – victory circle at IMS on May 27, 2018, after winning the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Winning at Indy isn’t a hopeful ambition for Team Penske. It’s an expectation for drivers for the most successful team in Indy car history. The Indianapolis 500 is the race that team owner Roger Penske circles on his calendar in thicker ink than any other. His team has won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” a record 16 times.
“It’s what built Team Penske’s legacy,” Newgarden said. “Driving for Roger, that’s what he wants to win. As drivers, it’s the one we want to win, too. It’s the hardest race to win.
“You only get one shot per year. We’re going to put that as our primary goal again next year and hope we get that one, too.”
Newgarden and all drivers in the field next May will face an additional variable, the sleek new universal aero kit that drew raves from fans, media and drivers during testing this summer.
The universal kit contains additional safety enhancements and is intended to deliver even greater on-track racing since most of the aerodynamic downforce will be generated from underneath the car. That will create less air turbulence for trailing cars, allowing for more overtaking opportunities.
A deep pool of resources and the experience of team owner Penske, team president Tim Cindric and the veteran Penske crew should help Newgarden and his teammates quickly unlock the secrets of speed for the new body kits.
The new aero kit also resembles the sleek rockets that raced at Indy in the 1980s and early 1990s. So it also doesn’t hurt Newgarden to be within arm’s reach of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Team Penske adviser Rick Mears, who ruled that era at the Brickyard.
“Roger has his hand on the pulse all the time,” Newgarden said. “He knows what’s going on. He’s going to give you what you need if you don’t have it.
“Any new variables, we’re pretty good at sorting through them quickly. I hope that’s what we’re able to do. If we do that, that should give us a good shot at potentially winning the race.
“I’m excited for it. I’m a little bit anxious, a little bit nervous. But that’s all good stuff. Having a new car, everyone – including the fans – is looking forward to that.”
2017 @IndyCar Champion and @Team_Penske driver @josefnewgarden receives a warm welcome from media and @IMS employees on his return to Indy! pic.twitter.com/WxizM57aHt