When Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet) won his NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2017 during his first season with Team Penske, he draped himself in an American flag on the podium at Sonoma Raceway.
When it comes to American series champions since the start of this century, they have been few and far between with multiple titles a rarity.
Newgarden, however, finds himself close to taking another monumental step for American drivers with the 28-year-old Nashville, Tenn., native needing a fourth-place finish or better in Sunday's Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey to secure his second series crown in the last three years.
He leads fellow American Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda) of Andretti Autosport by 41 points, Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Chevrolet) by 42 and five-time series champ Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda) by 85. Newgarden has built his lead on the strength of series highs for victories (4) and top-five finishes (12).
Newgarden and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda), the 2012 series champion, are the only Americans to win the title in the last 12 years. If Newgarden is able to win a second title, he will join three-time champ Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, '02, '06) as the only Americans with multiple crowns since 1995.
"Being able to represent the United States in one of the most diverse racing series in the world is such a privilege," said Newgarden, who is in his eighth full season. "And there's definitely a bit of patriotic pride when you can finish up front and represent your country. The IndyCar Series has always been about the best drivers from all over the world competing at the highest level and that's what makes it special. I definitely remember watching Hornish win a lot of races when I was growing up and to potentially be mentioned in the same breath as Sam would be incredible."
Rossi is chasing his first championship while Pagenaud is eyeing his second - the other came in 2016 - and Dixon his sixth (2003, '08, '13, '15, '18). While Rossi is hopeful he is the American that is crowned the new series champion, he is very cognizant of the overall importance of a U.S.-born champ in this series.
"I know I've read a lot of things from other drivers saying it doesn't matter, it's not important, no one cares. I can't really get on board with that," Rossi said. "I mean, I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That's what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James (Hinchcliffe). We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus (Ericsson) and Felix (Rosenqvist).
"I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American win the championship. I think it's important for the young kids watching hoping to be INDYCAR drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It's like, oh, there's a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver."
So what do the other contenders need to do to unseat Newgarden? To simplify the process by basing it off a win and not including championship bonus points for pole (1), leading a lap (1) and leading the most laps (2) in the equation, here's what they need to do in terms of finishing positions to win outright.
- A Rossi win coupled with a sixth-place finish (or worse) by Newgarden would give the Californian his first title, 652-649.
- A Pagenaud win, along with a sixth (or worse) by Newgarden, would give the Frenchman his second title, 651-649.
- Dixon needs help from all the contenders and the New Zealander would need all of the following to occur: A win (608 points), Newgarden to finish 23rd (607 points) or worse; Rossi to finish seventh (604 points) or worse; and Pagenaud to finish sixth or worse (607 points).