until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


IndyCar’s unfairly underrated future legend

by Jack Benyon
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The mere fact that this feature needs to be written seems baffling, but approaching the end of my first year as The Race’s IndyCar correspondent there’s one standout anomaly that I feel needs addressing.

Josef Newgarden is not given the credit he deserves.

Earlier this year Zak Brown of McLaren suggested Newgarden and Colton Herta would be top of his list for American drivers to try in Formula 1. The markets outside the US seem to accept that the 28-year-old is an elite level driver. One of the best outside of Formula 1.

But to my mind, too many overlook just how good Newgarden is.

Since joining Penske in 2017, Newgarden has won two IndyCar titles (2017 and ’19) and is still in contention for a third. If he finishes second this season where he currently lies, his average championship finish in that period will be 2.25. Let that sink in for a second.

Obviously that’s slightly lower than a Lewis Hamilton or a Marc Marquez, but they both compete for manufacturers able to design, build and develop their own equipment. IndyCar has a spec chassis.

Gateway IndyCar 2020

Also, Newgarden is doing that with two and sometimes three team-mates in the Penske organisation, as well as two or three strong Chip Ganassi Racing cars and at least five Andretti Autosport challengers to go up against.

His performance is so much more impressive given those three teams invariably dominate each year and there’s more of them than in a typical two-car team set-up in other major motorsport series.

Then there’s the fact that he’s consistently able to do this not only in one of the most competitive elite single-seater championships, but in a car that lives on a knife edge. The IndyCar Dallaras don’t have enough downforce for the amount of power they produce and every corner is a journey and a potential banana peel.

It’s not a case of ‘tuning to pound around the same line every lap for a tenth’ like Formula 1. It’s a brute force wrestle to keep the car on the straight and narrow until the end, with 23 or so others unpredictably attempting the same thing – while a single yellow flag can take things out of your control. The variables are mind-boggling.

“I’m kind of at peace with the fact maybe I’ll never win the 500” :: Josef Newgarden

Perhaps the standout of those cars and rivals is Scott Dixon – who does hold a slightly better average race finish record since 2017. But, Dixon has 150 more IndyCar race starts than Newgarden, and that’s not including Dixon’s two years in Champ Car. So the experience gulf is considerable and Newgarden more than pulls his weight against the driver who will go down as the most successful in modern IndyCar history when he retires.

But the real reason why Newgarden isn’t deemed a great yet in the States by many is because he’s yet to win an Indianapolis 500.

He came a lot closer than you may think this year. In the second year with ex-Red Bull F1 engineer Gavin Ward at his side, the pairing really delivered a strong event. They were miles ahead of their Penske team-mates and the second Chevrolet runner in what was a Honda-dominated qualifying.

Newgarden drove a clever race, and emerged ahead of eventual winner Takuma Sato after the last pitstop, but the car just wasn’t quite there to advance.

So he’s finished fourth and fifth in the last two years, but of course that isn’t good enough. In a race that is regarded by many as more important than an IndyCar championship, Newgarden is yet to tick the box and the haters love it.

Indianapolis 500 2020

It’s an impressive list of drivers who have won the 500, but plenty of champions haven’t. Tony Stewart, Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy are among them. But Newgarden doesn’t attach his legacy to one race, and rightly so.

“I’ve said it many times now: Indy is a tough place,” Newgarden said when asked by The Race after his Gateway win about the Indy 500 shortcomings.

“Look, there’s a lot of guys have gone their whole career and it’s never shined on them. That’s OK. That’s how it is. Sometimes it will shine on you four times, like our four-time champions at the 500.

“I don’t think you can force it. You never know what is going to happen. I’m kind of at peace with the fact maybe I’ll never win that race. That’s OK. You have to give your best effort.

“We gave our best effort last weekend. We were there. Unfortunately we were kind of in the fight into the last pitstop. I mean, we were literally right there with Dixon and Sato.

“I came in right on Sato’s gearbox on that final pitstop. We even beat him out into Turn 3 on that final stop. It’s not like we weren’t there.

“It wasn’t the right place, right time. We didn’t have exactly what we needed for that moment in the race. It didn’t work out.

“So you just have to get yourself that opportunity every year. Hopefully everything aligns, it ends up in a victory. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You go on to the next race, try to take as much as you can.

“I think it’s that attitude where you give yourself an opportunity. If it never works out, it never works out.”

Maybe it’s not just the lack of an Indy 500 win, maybe it’s that he’s just too nice, well-spoken. Newgarden rarely gets into on-track battles or wars of words after races. All is fair in love and war, he thanks the sponsors and moves on to the next race.

Ntt Indycar Series Honda Indy 200 At Mid Ohio

He displays an exemplary level of professionalism which maybe doesn’t suit the fans’ ideal of someone fighting against the system and constantly battling over adversity in life as much as on track.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to change and Newgarden is likely to be underrated for the foreseeable future until people are suddenly hit by some sort of Archimedes moment of ‘wow, this guy is pretty good’.

As a driverб he has the whole package. He deserves recognition as every bit on-par with Dixon, and looking at the latter’s career trajectory where he is fighting for a sixth title at the age of 41, there’s plenty of time for Newgarden to become IndyCar’s most successful driver ever.

Of this year’s calendar, the Indianapolis road course and 500 are the only two Newgarden hasn’t won at, so this weekend’s crucial double-header on the road course is vital for him in the fight for the championship with Dixon. He needs to outscore Dixon by 19 points if he has any hope of a third title. But really, that third title is unlikely to do so much for people’s opinions.

Maybe if he wins a 500 in the coming years, he’ll be recognised properly. But before then, think twice if you’re considering Dixon is the standout elite driver at the top of IndyCar. It’s a two-man club, and Newgarden’s in it with him.

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