Josef Newgarden is out for reclamation in 2019.
After claiming the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series championship in his first year with Team Penske, he learned firsthand the difficulties of putting up a strong title defense. A mathematical opportunity to go back-to-back at the season finale at Sonoma Raceway in September faded as Chip Ganassi Racing rival Scott Dixon turned a runner-up result into a fifth series championship.
For those that question the 28-year-old Newgarden’s hunger to hoist another Astor Cup Trophy, he has bad news. It isn’t relenting.
When looking at his own body of work from 2018, the biggest issue came down to stringing together positive results. Surprisingly, his three victories at ISM Raceway, Barber Motorsports Park and Road America also marked his only visits to the podium over the 17 races last year.
“We did the same thing last year (as in 2017), we just came up short,” said Newgarden, pilot of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. “We just weren't consistent enough last year, and particularly Scott was very consistent. I want to say he was the strongest across the board, but for consistency, no doubt he was on another level.
“You can have wins and you can have really streaky moments where you've been really quick, but if you don't have that consistency throughout the year, then you're not going to probably challenge for the championship. So that's what we need to be better at.
“I don't think I'm that different from a couple of years ago. I think I approach things very similarly. You're always learning, you're always getting better and you feel like every year you get a bit more prepared.”
The introduction of the universal aero kit for all competitors a year ago didn’t make things easier, providing a steep learning curve for Newgarden, as well as teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power.
“I think last year we probably weren't as comfortable with the new body kits as we wanted to be,” Newgarden admitted. “We still have a lot of areas we can improve on from last year, so it's ever evolving.
“Not just us, but also our knowledge of the tire and the car as it changes, every year you're chasing that. You hope to be on the front end of it, but some some years you're just not.”
While that makes finding the right balance to go fast easier in some ways, there can be unique limitations, even for a team with three championship-winning drivers.
“We know the information (from the drivers and the data) is quality, which is good,” said Newgarden, a 10-time race winner in 100 career starts.
“When the drivers say things, they're normally right. Where the difficulty comes in is preferences. I think the innate feel of all the guys is 100 percent correct. We only agree with each other all the time, but then you have to take into account the preference or description side of it.
“Simon and me might be saying the same thing but using completely different terminology. Those are sort of the barriers sometimes we struggle with. I don't know that they're necessarily barriers, but things we have to be aware of.
“We know that people that are working on everything are the best of the best, so I think that makes our jobs easier to figure out. Whenever we have a problem, you feel confident we can figure things out quicker because of that.”
An offseason full of preparation was finally put to use at INDYCAR Spring Training, the two-day open test at Circuit of The Americas in mid-February. After totaling 115 laps through four combined sessions, Newgarden posted the 11th-fastest time at 1 minute, 47.6625 seconds (114.023 mph) around the 3.41-mile circuit.
With another season also comes the hope of reaching racing immortality with the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Power delivered with an unforgettable performance to give team owner Roger Penske his record 17th victory at “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Newgarden is hoping it’s his turn.
“That'd be cool. I mean, if it's (Penske’s win No.) 19 or 20, that's fine too. One of them would be nice. It's important to go there and be good and be successful,” Newgarden said.
“Hopefully, this is the year we get a shot at maybe winning the 500. You've got to put yourself in a position every year and then hopefully one of the years pays off.”
The Indianapolis 500 is the sixth of 17 races on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule. The season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10, which airs live on NBCSN (12:30 p.m. ET) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.).