Josef Newgarden

Repeating as champion is never an easy task.

Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden is about to embark on a 2018 journey that he hopes accomplishes exactly that: back-to-back titles.

The 27-year-old Tennessean will attempt to join the likes of Dario Franchitti, the last to do when he completed a three-peat from 2009-11.

“Yeah, I’m really excited about it,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet.

“I think it’s a big challenge ahead of us. Everyone’s told me that it’s more difficult to win a second championship than it is the first. I’ve never gone through that, so I’ll take the advice from all the veterans, but I think it’s an exciting challenge.

“We’ve got to stay on top of our game just because, specifically in 2018, there’s a new car, you’re going to need to learn to adapt. We are going to need to figure out new setups. So it’s going to be tough on everybody. It’ll be tough on our team, but with Team Penske, we have the right resources and tools to get the job done if we stay on task.”

Josef NewgardenAlthough he scored four of his seven career wins during his first season with Team Penske and sixth overall in the Verizon IndyCar Series, which kept teammate Simon Pagenaud from repeating as champion, Newgarden remains a student of the game.

“I think you look at everybody, everyone’s championships and try to learn from them,” said Newgarden, the 2011 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion before joining the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I look at mine, what could we have done better? Look at Scott (Dixon’s), look at Pagenaud’s, look at Will (Power’s). You look at everybody’s to try and understand why their champion turned out the way it did, just trying to pick the best parts out of everything you can use to improve your own game. I think the goal is the same – to always be consistent, try and win some races.

“For me, it’s really just been about focusing on each week individually, maximizing each weekend by itself. I think that’s always been a successful strategy and I think we’ll try to keep that (approach) going forward.”

Despite a monumental run that saw Newgarden capture seven top-two finishes across the final 10 races, including three wins, he knows there are areas that could be improved.

“Last year was certainly not perfect,” said Newgarden, citing his four finishes outside the top 10. “We had some rough spots. The good thing is when we had rough spots, they didn’t bleed over into other races. We generally picked back up and had a good weekend the next weekend. But we need to be a little more consistent throughout the year.”

Newgarden points specifically to May, where he had an 11th-place finish at the INDYCAR Grand Prix and a 19th-place result at the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, one of two double-points races.

“We need to have a better month of May,” Newgarden admitted. “We got destroyed in the points in May. So if we can just fix May, I think that would be a huge step forward for performance for us.

“Other than that, I think there’s small things and certain qualifying aspects that we can be better at. I think we were better than we looked in qualifying this year, but they didn’t show it results-wise. So we’ve got to turn that around and have more poles than we did in 2017 (one).

“There’s a lot of things that can be cleaned up or adjusted. Hopefully, those little adjustments will help us be stronger. And I think if we achieve all those things, then we’re going to be set for another championship challenge, at least.”

Part of the learning curve will no doubt come with 2018 Indy car and its universal aero kit. Newgarden completed 303 laps in during the open test at ISM Raceway last weekend, scoring the fourth-best lap of the four combined sessions at 189.399 mph (19.4257 seconds).

Overall, the focus for this year’s Indianapolis 500 has already begun.

“I think the 500 is the biggest goal for the year,” said Newgarden, who best finish in the series’ marquee race was third place in 2016 when he was with Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It always is, but certainly going into 2018 that’s the No. 1 goal for the season. We really need to be successful in May. We weren’t in 2017. We didn’t have a good month of May last year, so needing to figure out how to be better at that is the No. 1 priority. Really, if we’re good at that it’s going to help the championship.”