until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Is Palou’s once-certain IndyCar title now at risk?

by Jack Benyon
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Josef Newgarden has won eight of the last 10 IndyCar oval races – a staggering number when you consider how unpredictable those races can be – and joined a club so exclusive there had been no new members for 30 years.

On Sunday, Newgarden’s fifth win on an oval in a row launched him into a three-driver club with AJ Foyt and Al Unser Sr, who both raced in years when IndyCar was oval only.

The day before, Newgarden had joined those drivers and Nigel Mansell on four straight oval wins, a group which hasn’t had new members since Mansell’s 1993 title-winning season.

Josef Newgarden Hy Vee One Step 250 Presented By Gatorade By Joe Skibinski Large Image Without Watermark M88091

Some people expect that Newgarden should win in a foregone conclusion, bordering on boredom sort of way at Iowa – where he now has six victories.

I choose to think about it in a different way. Every year pressure is piled on him here. Every year, his competitors have more tape evidence of his races and his team-mates have his data to dissect 500 laps more of Newgarden’s secret sauce. And for a second year in a row, he was untouchable.

Even race to race, the rising temperatures and the lack of a need to compromise the race set-up for qualifying like they did on Saturday gave the opposition a new chance with Newgarden starting seventh. But he took far fewer laps (31) to get to the front from there on Sunday than he did from third on Saturday (121).

There’s no golden bullet for why Newgarden is good here. A few key reasons are that Penske almost always brings a strong car, Newgarden has a brilliant knack for knowing which line to take when passing cars in traffic, and he’s also extremely astute at knowing what changes his car needs to combat changing conditions.

Yes, his ability gives him an advantage, but delivering under that weight of expectation would be too much for many drivers, especially over a period of years at Iowa.

“Any person that I talked to, they just assume, ‘Oh, you’re going to have a great weekend’,” Newgarden said after the race.

“I just stay very vigilant with that because there is going to be a year. It’s bound to happen. We’re going to show up here, and we’re not going to be very good.

“That’s OK, I’m expecting that to happen. I want to be able to get on top of it when it does hit us, but yeah, that’s the challenge that I think of when I come here.”

Josef Newgarden Hy Vee Salute To Farmers 300 By Chris Jones Large Image Without Watermark M65381

Not even the memory of a crash in race two last year that robbed him of a win and earned him an overnight stay in hospital, before putting his participation in the next race in doubt, could cast a shadow over his 2023 performance. The thought of it had barely crossed his mind.

Newgarden said pre-weekend that even internally he can see why his team might be expecting to score big points at Iowa, and that’s one of the things Newgarden’s engineer Luke Mason worked on in the build-up.

“We got together as a group pretty early on after Toronto and tried to remove the ‘Mr Iowa’ tag from everything and reset and go about our process,” Mason told The Race.

Part of the pressure this year was because of Alex Palou’s 117-point lead in the championship. The gap to Newgarden was even bigger – 126 points – with Iowa being the obvious place to eat into it.

Alex Palou Hy Vee Homefront 250 Presented By Instacart By Joe Skibinski Large Image Without Watermark M87679

Newgarden’s pair of wins reduced the gap to 80 – a 46-point gain – which means he needs to outscore Palou by 16 points per race to tie him by the end of the year.

“I would take it; I don’t know about you, but that’s a positive result I think leaving the weekend,” Newgarden reckons.

Palou was also happy with the result given the expectation of Newgarden’s success.

An eighth in race one – incredibly, tied for his worst result of the year so far – was a disappointment for the Spaniard, who went long in the first stint but has his chance to skip a stop and potentially cycle to the front later on ruined by an ill-timed caution.

He felt he had plenty of speed in that race, which was ironic because in race two he “had no pace”, especially in the second stint when he pondered the set of tyres he was on as he went from understeer to oversteer he felt he almost could not control.

But by staying on the lead lap and with the work his team did to improve his car, he took third.

It’s typical of a year where it feels like nothing can go wrong for Palou. Even when they do, either he gets a stroke of luck or he and his team pull off an extraordinary effort.

“I expected Josef to win,” said Palou, “so we were counting on that, and it was up to us to try and minimise the damage.

“100% didn’t expect to be on the podium. I’m happy to be here.”

An element of Palou’s podium which has probably not been discussed as much was that he extended his gap over all of his other championship rivals, so much so that Scott Dixon in third is 120 points behind and will have to outscore his team-mate by at least 24 points per race to win the title – with only 54 on offer each weekend and a five-point minimum for starting the races.

Alex Palou Hy Vee One Step 250 Presented By Gatorade By Joe Skibinski Large Image Without Watermark M87993

So that likely does leave Newgarden as the only realistic challenger for the title after this weekend, although that’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

Newgarden and Palou are tied on four wins each in 2023, yet there are 80 points between them. It’s true Newgarden has had more misfortune but I don’t think even Newgarden or Mason would argue that the #10 Palou crew has executed at a higher level.

There’s Gateway to come, where Newgarden will likely be strong again after winning the last two races there, but apart from that there’s the street circuit in Nashville where anything can happen, a second Indianapolis road course race – Palou having triumphed there earlier in 2023 – Portland where Palou won in 2021, and Laguna Seca where Newgarden was strong last year but Palou beat the field by half a minute.

What’s clear is that the #2 team will need to execute at a higher level than it has in most of this season to have a shot.

Where Newgarden’s season has faltered

St Petersburg – 17th, engine issue
Barber – 15th, crash damage
Long Beach – ninth, fuel issue
Mid-Ohio – 12th, wrong strategy and 15th in qualifying

Long Beach was especially disappointing, with a fuel issue at the end likely cost a win or at least a podium.

“We left Mid-Ohio and were a bit down with our race there and how we decided to run the race probably wasn’t the best option, we put ourselves in a box,” said Mason.

Josef Newgarden Honda Indy 200 At Mid Ohio By Travis Hinkle Large Image Without Watermark M86410

“So we did a bit of soul searching and got a bit pissed off with life and I did the math and went back and through our own doing and obviously including] the engine at St Pete, conservatively I think we’ve given up 59 points this year.

“All of a sudden you give us 59 points and you’re in the game.

“Coming into this year I was a big believer in us not shooting ourselves in the foot, and if we could tick all the boxes as a team generally the results are going to come because we’ve got the best crew in pitlane, we’ve got I believe the best driver in the field and we’ve got the best cars in the field.

“So a big part of it’s just not beating ourselves and unfortunately, we’ve beat ourselves and we’ve ended up outside the 10 and that’s where you just can’t do that in IndyCar anymore and especially when you see guys like Palou have a bad day and rally.”

Josef Newgarden Hy Vee One Step 250 Presented By Gatorade By Joe Skibinski Large Image Without Watermark M88082

It’s a game of cat and mouse now. Some will believe that Palou has misfortune coming his way because he hasn’t had much – he has had some, but not as much as others this year – and that Newgarden has, so things should swing his way.

Others will point out Palou has worked hard to bounce back and deliver from his points of misfortune and that he will continue to do so.

The points lead is perhaps irrelevant if Newgarden isn’t able to execute and avoid finishing outside the top 10 again in the remainder of the year.

But ticking off two Iowa wins – under intense pressure and scrutiny no other driver gets at any other track – is the only thing that has put him in this conversation in the first place.

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