There is an electricity coursing through the NTT IndyCar Series paddock in 2019.
The season has become unique for a variety of reasons – including four different winners, each from a different team, to start the season. But since drivers are the unquestionable face of the sport, it is mainly due to the enticing blend of talented rookies and veterans.
Alexander Rossi dazzled on the streets of Southern California two Sundays ago with a dominating victory in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. A month ago, the racing world was buzzing after Colton Herta became the youngest winner in Indy car history in the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas.
Every bit of praise and hype that has followed those two is absolutely deserved. Rossi is coming off a championship runner-up result last season, when he won three races, and currently sits second in the standings. Herta delivered in just his third NTT IndyCar Series start following a meteoric rise up the open-wheel ranks in Europe and the United States.
However, some have overlooked a pretty big player in the game this year. You may have heard of him. He goes by the name Josef Newgarden.
The 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion is also the current points leader and has showcased a class of consistency that puts him in a category by himself after the first four races of the 2019 season. In fact, he has one win, three podiums and a season-worst finish of fourth.
That comes out to a 2.25 average finish, which marks a career-best start for Newgarden, in his eighth NTT IndyCar Series campaign. The 28-year-old had an average finish of 4.0 to begin last season that included a pair of wins, but his only podium finish in the final 13 races was a win at Road America and he faded to fifth in the championship by season’s end.
While Newgarden is the only driver to finish every race in the top five to start this season, few championship conversations have drifted toward the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. Surprising, with such a sterling resume for the Tennessean.
Newgarden didn’t exactly help his cause for attention Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval open test. In a day interrupted and disjointed by periodic rain, he was just 16th quick of the 29 drivers who turned laps. Not the stuff of which headlines are made.
One way to change that is to build on his race-results momentum with a strong month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It kicks off with INDYCAR Grand Prix on the road course May 11, a race where Newgarden has failed to post a top-10 finish in five previous starts. If there’s a positive in the situation, Newgarden drives for Team Penske, which has won the last four IMS road-course events between teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. The latter also won the inaugural event in 2014 driving for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, so there’s certainly winning knowledge and data in the Penske camp.
Following that comes the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Not only is “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” the world’s largest single-day sporting event, it offers precious double championship points increasing its significance in the title chase. Newgarden finished third in the 2016 Indy 500 driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, but everyone knows the Team Penske legacy in the race, with 17 victories including with Power last year.
If Newgarden can come out the other side of May unscathed and maintain something close to his average race finish thus far, there could be a padded championship cushion we haven’t seen in roughly a decade.
At the end of the day, every NTT IndyCar Series driver warrants time in the spotlight. The plethora of talent added this year throughout the grid has tightened the vise on what was already a stacked group. It’s what helps INDYCAR set the standard for the unknown and unpredictability for who could win on any given weekend.
Whether it is the fascination of a trending rookie in Herta or the relentless drive of rising superstar Rossi, the simple truth is to never take your eyes off the top spot.
Yeah, it’s early, but don’t get it twisted. Newgarden is the driver everyone is chasing. That alone commands attention.
Overlook him at your peril. He might just be on his way to a magical year.