MONTEREY, Calif. — Tina Newgarden realized when her son was young how much it meant to be first in line.
As a first-grader at Sumner Academy in Gallatin, Tenn., Josef Newgarden expected mom to be ahead of everyone else in the proverbial pole position of that school parking lot pick-up line.
“I had to be first or it would not be his day then,” Tina said Sunday, just before her son took the stage at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca to accept his second NTT IndyCar Series championship.
“I had to be No. 1 in the pick-up line. The days that I was running late, I would do all sorts of things and be very unhappy amongst the other moms because I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to squeeze myself in the No. 1 spot here so he’s happy.’ That’s just how it was all the time, always No. 1.”
Josef, 28, clinched his second title in three years by finishing eighth in Sunday’s double-points Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.
The ecstatic driver, who admitted tears started flowing on the final lap, leaped into the arms of his crew in pit lane. He wasn’t the only one shedding tears.
Asked if her son’s emotions were tears of joy or relief, Tina said, “I think it was tears of just about everything. The season is over and he got it. It was the same for all of us. It’s all good.”
Although Newgarden seized the points lead after the season-opening race, led most of the season and had a modest cushion over the other three championship contenders entering Sunday, he was admittedly stressed about this title going down to the wire. He started Sunday 41 points ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, 42 in front of teammate Simon Pagenaud and 85 above five-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing.
That meant Newgarden had to finish at least fourth to clinch. He ended up 25 ahead of Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, who was second on Sunday. Rossi was 33 back and Dixon 63 behind.
“I can breathe again,” Tina said, summing up a Newgarden family (left) that could finally exhale. “He got it. I’m so proud of him.”
When Newgarden arrived in the series in 2012, he was known as much for his fun-loving personality as anything else. His steady climb toward finishing up front, which included three wins before signing with Roger Penske for 2017, coincided with a modest change in personality.
He was still enjoying every minute of racing, but Newgarden became increasingly more intense about those results. Mom saw a difference and understood. She knew how much this meant to her son.
Even after winning his first series title in 2017, which included four wins in his first season with Team Penske, Newgarden reset his focus on needing to repeat. It wasn’t enough just to win one title.
“He’s growing up, you know?” Tina said. “That’s really what it is. He’s growing up, he’s more focused, this is not fun and games. This is what he wants to do and he wants to win it all.
“I just feel relieved and proud of him. Shoot, it’s over. Thank goodness. This season, it was so long. He led the points from the get-go. Then in the month of May, it went downhill. He was only one point behind, but it was still, to Joseph, ‘That’s why I can’t be one point behind,’ and ‘I didn’t get the ‘(Indy) 500.’ It’s hard. He had to come back and he did. It was very difficult.”
She reflected on the path the Newgarden family took to get to this moment. She recalled how Josef enjoyed playing baseball for about 10 years. But racing became more important.
“He wanted to go fast. Anything with speed,” she said. “Once he got into Skip Barber and then overseas and then Indy Lights, he caught that bug. It was an expensive thing to catch and be interested in. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here. For every one, I’m sure there are 500 looking in, wanting to have that. He’s worked hard.”
Although Josef has one of the more engaging personalities, mom still sees her son as a bit of an introvert. And just like back in the day, when it was time to pick him up at school, he was a creature of habit.
That meant Tina would always have his favorite soup, corn chowder, in the freezer when Josef was coming home.
“I would come home and he would be eating his favorite soup and watching a movie,” she said.
Josef’s stressful ride to success prompted Tina to offer some advice.
“I told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well,’” she said. “He’s still moody about anything when it doesn’t go well. No, he’s still the same. He hasn’t changed.”
But perhaps, after winning this second title, Newgarden has learned how to keep those emotions in check a little better.
“I think so,” Tina said. “He really wanted that second championship to prove something. He’s proven he’s worthy of being here.”