Through the food poisoning – blame the lamb – and the nauseating reality that he was highly unlikely to repeat as Verizon IndyCar Series champion – blame Scott Dixon – Josef Newgarden was philosophical and successful in not micro-analyzing where those precious missing points eluded him in the 2018 season.
But as he leaned against a locker inside the Team Penske transporter at Sonoma Raceway during the final race weekend of the season in September, the 27-year-old kept finding fresh examples of where those points went. The main consolation, it seemed, was that they vanished not because of some glaring void in the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet’s team or the organization’s arsenal. His three wins, after all, tied Dixon, Will Power and Alexander Rossi for the series lead, and he topped the standings for three weeks and threatened into the late summer. He led the most laps of anyone this year, 70 more than Rossi, his nearest competitor.
So just as teammate Simon Pagenaud came to his own realization last season at Sonoma that producing two pristine, championship-enabling campaigns in a row is incredibly difficult and that parity in the INDYCAR paddock allows for nothing less, Newgarden was left to focus on positives that had been positive enough and not the fact that he didn’t become the first repeat champion since Dario Franchitti in 2011.
“It’s too tight and it swings so quickly,” said Newgarden, who finished fifth in the standings, 118 points behind five-time series champion Dixon. “You have too many guys that are good now and you have too many teams that are capable that having these perfect runs years after year, it is difficult to line it up year after year.
“Even Scott’s not immune to that. He finished, what, sixth last year? (Editor’s note: Dixon finished third in the 2017 standings and sixth in 2016.) He’s gone from winning to third, winning to third and winning to second. It just swings and it seems this year was very much about Scott. They’ve been steady and they got the thirds, fourths, fifths they needed everywhere, instead of a seventh, eighth, ninth – and that helps throughout the year.”
Team owner Roger Penske, who pared his team from four full-time drivers to three for the 2018 season – with Helio Castroneves moving to Penske’s IMSA sports car team, though the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner returned for the May races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – was pleased enough with his lineup to make no changes for next season.
“I think that (Newgarden) and Will when you look at them – and they were championship contenders all year – Josef really got in the wall there at Toronto which really hurt his day, quite honestly, and Will the same,” Penske said.
Newgarden led the standings through three of the first five races after winning during that span at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham. He finished no better than eighth in the next five races, however, falling to fifth in points before winning his final race of the season at Road America in late June.
Newgarden led 229 laps at Iowa Speedway in July, but he opted to pit from second place for fresh tires under a late caution and finished fourth when the race could not be restarted before the checkered flag waved.
“I think Iowa was more insult to injury,” he admitted. “We were going to get beat either way. We lost the race at the end, but we should have finished second, at least. If we had a shot to win, that would have been great. But I look at it as we got beat. We were going to finish second, but we finished fourth. That’s kind of been the season.
“Every race this year where we should have been second or third, and we finished seventh. And there’s been like 10 races like that turned into that kind of result. That’s why we only have three podiums and every podium we have has been a win. So, we either win the race or we finish sixth or seventh.
“We’ve been very strong in a lot of respects, but it just did not come together like we needed it to.”
Still second in the standings despite finishing ninth at Toronto following a crash in July, Newgarden finished no better than fourth in the final five races of the season. By comparison, in his 2017 championship season, the Tennessean closed the year with three wins and two second-place finishes in the last six races.
All in all, he said, it was a “strange season in a lot of ways.”
“Because we’ve been fast,” he said. “Where we struggled from a points standpoint is we couldn’t always seem to convert. Like, Portland (the next-to-last race), we probably could have won that race, but the way the yellows worked out, it favored two-stoppers more than it did three-stoppers. … And we just had too many races like that where it just wasn’t what we needed from a strategy standpoint
“I don’t know, I think a lot of times it’s not been the fault of anybody. The year just didn’t flow the way we needed it to. So, I guess, what do you take from that? I don’t know that we really need to do anything drastically different. You can’t control the uncontrollable.”