SONOMA, California – At one area of Sonoma Raceway, new Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden draped himself in an American flag, kissed the Astor Cup and gave a golf cart the honor of his autograph.
About 200 yards away in Sunoco Victory Lane, Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud posed for pictures with a smaller group of photographers, sipped some red wine and then clumsily opened a bloody gash above his right eye after bumping it with the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma winner’s trophy.
Simultaneous celebrations coronated a new champion in one corner while recognizing a race winner and former champion who walked away bloodied but determined to bounce back next year.
“That’s how hard you fight in an Indy car race,” Pagenaud said, proudly wiping blood from his wound with a towel.
In boxing parlance, Pagenaud prevailed in this double-points round for his second victory of the season, but Newgarden won the most important fight by decision after finishing second on Sunday to secure his first points championship. He’s the first American to win the series title since Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012.
That means something to the 26-year-old Tennessean, whom Hall of Fame team owner Roger Penske referred to as “a journeyman who started at the bottom and worked his way up.” And Newgarden, in his first season of a dream job driving for such a prestigious team, earned this distinction with a series-best four victories this season.
It’s not just about being an American, either. It’s about representing the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“I’m proud to carry the flag happily,” Newgarden said. “I love the IndyCar Series. It’s got the whole world in front of it.”
He later added, “We’re in a good place right now, but we want to be in an amazing place.”
About one hour earlier, Penske had spoken of his new champion with a similar perspective as the team celebrated on pit lane.
“This young kid who just won the championship, you’re just starting to see him,” Penske said. “He’s going to be great.”
Team president Tim Cindric, Newgarden’s strategist, admitted he didn’t know what to expect when Penske hired the driver last offseason.
“I think now we all see why,” Cindric said.
Newgarden’s steady rise in the series – what he termed “a crazy journey” – brought him from Nashville to a European go-kart track to the Mazda Road to Indy to driving an Indy car for Sarah Fisher and then Ed Carpenter.
“I just always dreamed and hoped that I could have a very successful career and be good at this, but you never know if it's going to work out,” Newgarden said.
What’s ironic is since his series debut in 2012, there was a time when he didn’t think he would land this kind of ride.
“The more years I drove in INDYCAR, the more I thought I would never get hired by a team like Team Penske,” Newgarden said. “I never thought that would really happen. It seemed like those guys didn't want me a part of their team, which was fine with me in some degree because I've worked with a lot of great groups before and we've had a lot of success.
“But having been a part of Team Penske for a year now, I can't tell you how amazing they are as a group. I'm so honored to drive for Roger and Tim and the entire team and all our partners. They're the best of the best.”
Team Penske interest was piqued after Newgarden’s dominant 2016 triumph in the Iowa Corn 300 for Ed Carpenter Racing. That stuck in Penske’s mind. It wasn’t just because Newgarden set a series record by leading 282 laps. He also displayed his determination and toughness in a third career win that came just 28 days after he broke his hand and clavicle in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway.
“That run at Iowa really woke me up,” Penske said. “Then to see him get back in the car with almost a broken back and continue to compete shows the kind of guts he has.
“It seems when he has to make it happen, he knows how to do that. That’s what makes a real winner.”
A humbled Newgarden couldn't help but be emotional at times amid the celebration. He expressed gratitude to his parents, particularly to his father Joey for finally buying the Newgarden his first go-kart at age 13. He thanked his Team Penske teammates for making him better as well as previous teams for helping his career.
He reflected on an offseason of so much change, which included moving from Indianapolis to Charlotte to be closer to Penske headquarters.
“I’ve had so much to live up to in that you have champions around you, you have guys pushing you every week that are making you get the most out of yourself and you have to match them,” Newgarden said of having Pagenaud, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and 2014 series champion Will Power as teammates.
“It’s given me the biggest opportunity to grow and to prove myself in that environment, and that’s been fun.”
Pagenaud had his fun this day, too, just not as much as last year on this stage nor as much as Newgarden.
“It’s not like we’re leaving No. 1 without honor and with disappointment,” Pagenaud said. “We gave it a fair fight.”
He threw that bloody towel over his shoulder and departed with a final promise.
“I’ll be back,” he said, “punching even harder.”