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How Newgarden’s 2020 IndyCar masterpiece fell short

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

It was odd to hear a driver who had just lost an IndyCar title by 16 points say “I don’t think I would change one thing that we did”. But despite the crushing defeat in the season finale – which itself he won – it’s easy to see where Newgarden is coming from after a near-perfect season, that just wasn’t quite perfect enough.

Newgarden and eventual title winner Scott Dixon both won four races, finished every lap and were the only drivers to average a race finish lower than sixth across the season.

However, Newgarden suffered so much misfortune over the year. The fact he led 455 laps – 115 more than Dixon, which is effectively a 2020 race distance – points to the fact that he may feel a little hard done by not to take home a third title.

“I’m torn. I’m so torn with this season,” said Newgarden when asked by The Race if it was a positive or a negative for his mindset knowing there wasn’t much he could do differently.

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“On one hand, like I said, I take pride in the fact that I don’t think we did much wrong this year. I really don’t. If you look back at it, the one thing that I could nitpick is maybe we should have been on it a little better in a couple qualifying sessions.

“As far as race day, the decision-making we did for a complete season, we finished every lap. We had the potential to win six or seven races on merit, in my opinion. It just didn’t pan out.

“A lot of the days where we should have been on the podium or should have won a race, they didn’t fall our way. I’m extremely proud of that fact, that I don’t think we would have done much different.

Josef Newgarden Penske Iowa IndyCar 2020

“When we analyse the whole year, we’re not going to point to this mistake or that mistake. There just was not a lot of them, really any at all. It almost makes it that much harder.

“You look at the gap that we were at five races to go, 117 back. You look at how much we clawed back for the season finale, to be beat by so little, that’s what makes it bittersweet.

“On the one hand I’m happy about a hard performance, but sad about the way the whole thing turned out.”

Nothing can be taken away from the amazing competitor that is Dixon. But when looking back on 2020 there’s plenty of reasons to feel Newgarden’s misfortune.

We’ve outlined those key races with incidents for Newgarden’s below.

Race 2: Indianapolis road course

Newgarden, Indianapolis, Indycar 2020One of the worst races of the year in terms of how one yellow flag completely changed the race. A caution in the second half meant all those who hadn’t pitted a second time totally lost out.

Newgarden was second in that group and later passed Will Power who had led from pole on the same strategy. It might not have been so bad with a recovery to seventh – his first top-10 at the circuit – but Dixon emerging as the race winner cost Newgarden 24 points.

Interestingly, a return visit to the track for a double-header in October yielded a first and a fourth for Newgarden, with Dixon ninth and eighth.

Points lost to Dixon here: 24

Race 3: Road America

Josef Newgarden Penske Road America IndyCar 2020In the first race of the double header Newgarden started from pole and built a lead, but had a stall in the pits and was chasing his tail from there.

Arguably his only major driving mistake of the year came in the closing stages where he locked up and ran wide at Turn 1, turning a top-six into a 14th place finish – his worst of the year despite yet again having a winning car on pace.

Starting further back in race two, he turned 14th into ninth after overnight changes did not yield car improvements.

Points lost to Dixon: 27

Race 7: Indy 500

Josef Newgarden's Penske Chevrolet Dw12A fifth-place finish hardly points to the season’s biggest missed opportunity, but with context it wasn’t far off.

Newgarden emerged from the final pitstop ahead of eventual winner Takuma Sato, but just didn’t have his pace in the final stint. Not only was it a chance for Newgarden to stick two fingers up at the people who underrate him for having not yet won a 500, the double points on offer made a big difference.

Without considering bonus points, the gap between Newgarden and Dixon in a normal race would have been 10. With double points for the race it was 20, and Dixon took 11 bonus points across qualifying and the race to Newgarden’s none. That turned a 10 point deficit into a 31-point gut-punch.

Points lost to Dixon: 31

Race 8: Gateway

Newgarden Gateway 2020Newgarden won the second race of the weekend with a brilliant tactical display. However, race one was another Indianapolis scenario, a caution for basically non-existent rain ruining a number of drivers’ strategies – including Newgarden’s.

He had to settle for 12th in a race where a podium was pretty much the least he could have expected. With his race two performance, it was another sign of how good he was, the result for race one taken well out of his control – even if it did contribute to him driving angry to finish the weekend the next day with victory.

Points lost to Dixon: 12

The Race says…

You only have to look at how much some top teams and drivers have struggled in 2020 to realise what an achievement it is for the two drivers to move clear and be the de facto title contenders a cut above the rest.

For this reason, neither of the duo was going to be an undeserving champion and over the course of an IndyCar season any driver is going to have fortune go for and against.

Dixon suggested both drivers have struggled with qualifying this year but his has been a bigger issue with an average start of 9.1 compared to Newgarden’s 5.5. The latter was one of only two drivers to get multiple poles with three, while Dixon failed to score one.

However, Dixon’s average finish of 5 is 0.2 better than Newgarden and that – combined with the bonus points in the Indy 500 – helped push the title over the edge.

Josef Newgarden Penske Indianapolis 500 2020

Both have also made key errors this year. Newgarden’s lock-up at Road America was a sign of frustration at a race he started on pole and was the class of the field and then fell apart with the pitlane stall. At Mid-Ohio, Dixon’s wild spin at Turn 1 likely cost him wrapping up the title a round early. There was also a nightmare second race at Road America.

Otherwise, Dixon’s been consistent all season and continues to reinvent himself – as does the Chip Ganassi team – in the face of adversity.

Last season they were comprehensively beaten by Newgarden, but this year they put themselves in a position to win. He led the points from start to finish with the three-race winning streak at the start of the year key.

But nailing my colours to the wall, this feels more like a Newgarden title lost than a Dixon title dominated. Dixon was so uncharacteristically average in the last six races as Newgarden nailed a 101-point swing in his favour – the likes of which Dixon has done to other drivers before but has rarely been on the end of himself.

He still scored five top-10s over that run, but it was an average run as Newgarden chalked up performance after performance.

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And adding Indianapolis, Road America and the first Gateway race together totals 63 points Newgarden lost to Dixon, which all included major issues way out of his control.

Of course Dixon fans can argue Dixon could have taken more risks had the points been closer. But this is IndyCar, it’s not like Dixon took his foot off the gas at any point. After all his lead was as high as 117 at one stage and ended up at 16! Dixon’s had nowhere near the misfortune of his rival.

Newgarden really ought to be rated higher, as I’ve written this season already. He had faster cars but too much bad luck to repeat his brilliant 2019 success.

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