Josef Newgarden

Like any young driver, Josef Newgarden dreamed of winning a Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

He didn’t know if or when that would happen. Now that it has in his first season with Team Penske, the accomplishment has enhanced the 26-year-old Tennessean’s perspective on being a champion, his personal growth and the influential role bestowed upon him as an energetic ambassador representing the sport.

“Some guys hit their fortunes to be in this sport and it takes them 20 years to get where they want to be,” Newgarden said. “Some guys, it happens in a year or two. I didn't really know how it was going to work out for me. I think as a racer, you always dream it happens sooner. It would have been cool to get a championship sooner than my sixth year, but I can't complain.

“I think everything that's happened in my career has made me who I am today. It's made me strong inside the race car and inside a race team. You know, with where we're at now, I'm just really thankful and really happy about it, and the biggest thing that I always want as a driver is just to get better every single season. If you're continuing to go forward and we've won a championship, then that only means good things to come in the future.”

Team owner Roger Penske referred to Newgarden as “a journeyman” who had to work his way to the top after finishing 23rd in the points in his 2012 debut for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Penske assured this year was merely the beginning of Newgarden making a name for himself.

That’s saying something considering teammates Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are as established as any driver in the series. Castroneves just completed his 20th year of Indy car racing and his 30 career wins include three Indianapolis 500s. Power has won 32 races and is the 2014 champion. Seven of Pagenaud’s 10 career wins have come in the past two seasons with Penske, for whom he won the 2016 series crown.

Newgarden was asked about his potential longevity, but hit the brakes on that subject. One thing he’s learned in a short amount of time – savor the flavor of achievement.

“It’s important not to get too ahead of yourself,” he said. “I think we've got to be really proud of what we did this year. We've got to enjoy it. You have to. Someone reminded me that you have to take time to enjoy these moments because it doesn't mean anything if you don't take the time to enjoy it and appreciate it.

“We're going to do that, for sure. But what the future holds, I don't think we can get ahead of ourselves. It takes a lot of work to do what we did this year, and I hope we're able to do it many, many times over. But it doesn't always work out that way, so we've got to be on our toes, make sure we’re aggressive but cautious at the same time, and I hope 10, 20 years down the road, we've got many more championships and hopefully some Indy 500s along the way, too.”

Newgarden won a series-best four races this season to bump his career total to seven. Already known as one of the most personable drivers in the paddock, his persona will inevitably grow in the spotlight now that he’s distinguished himself further on the track.

He acknowledges that being a champion means accepting the responsibility to represent the sport positively.

“Look, I'll carry the flag happily,” he said. “I love the (Verizon) IndyCar Series. I think it's got the whole world in front of it. It can go so many good ways. I'll do the best that I can to help spread the word and show people how great this sport is. I think people have been catching on, to be honest with you, over the last couple years. They're coming back to the sport. Anyone that we lost over the last 20 years, I think they've been coming back over the last five or six seasons, and we've got to make sure that we keep doing that.

“It's not one big step, it's going to be little steps at a time, and I think in the next five years hopefully we can be in an amazing place. I think we're in a good place right now, but we want to be in an amazing place. I'll do my best to carry that flag and help everyone in the Verizon IndyCar Series keep going up.”