MONTEREY, Calif. — Two years ago, as Josef Newgarden celebrated his first NTT IndyCar Series championship after the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, an appreciative Roger Penske gushed about his driver’s future.
“This young kid who just won the championship, you’re just starting to see him,” Penske said. “He’s going to be great.”
Fast forward to Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The Hall of Fame owner and Newgarden were all smiles again. It wasn’t just deja vu. It proved once again that Penske is usually astute when looking into his crystal ball.
“He’s validated that he’s a champion,” Penske said, just before Newgarden took the stage to celebrate his second series title after finishing eighth in the season-ending, double-points race in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.
The owner’s 16th career Indy car championship also established the 28-year-old Newgarden in distinct company as just the second American along with Sam Hornish Jr. to claim multiple series crowns since 1995.
The euphoric moment called for more high praise from “The Captain.”
“He’s a true American racer,” Penske said. “The guy came from the bottom up. His family helped him. He really has executed here for us. He’s got a big future for us long term.”
In three seasons since joining Team Penske, Newgarden has won four races in each of his championship seasons as well as three in 2017. He caught Penske’s eye by winning three races in 2015 and 2016 while driving for Ed Carpenter and Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing.
“We saw it in him,” Penske said.
Winning never gets old for the best of the best. But Newgarden had added motivation in 2019 after finishing a disappointing fifth in the points last year. The Tennessean was determined to prove himself worthy of Penske’s expectations. The driver's intensity level and focus were at an all-time high because Newgarden had to show he could repeat as a champion.
Penske thought all three of his drivers drove flawlessly when it counted most.
Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, placed fourth in the race to finish second to Newgarden in the championship, just as the Frenchman did in 2017. Will Power, the 2014 series champion, finished second in the race to end up fifth in the points.
“Hey, these guys were on it today,” Penske said. “They had a job to do. We all knew what we had to do. It was a good day.”
The first Indy car race at this track since 2004 also bought back memories for Penske, who said one of his last races as a driver was on this permanent road course before he retired in 1965.
Penske was asked later if his stomach was churning during the latter part of the race.
“My stomach churns all the time,” he said, “so I’m used to it.”
He acknowledged Newgarden’s tearful jubilation after the driver climbed out of the car and leaped into the arms of his crew on pit road.
“There's so much emotion inside for someone like that because you've got to be perfect today, and I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out,” Penske said. “His family was there, his mom, his grandmother, she came all the way from Denmark to see this race, so it was pretty special for her.”
Newgarden had seized the points lead from the outset with a victory in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. When Pagenaud triumphed in May’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge to complete the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sweep after also winning the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the road course, he had a one-point lead on Newgarden in the standings.
Back came Newgarden with a victory at Detroit. He never relinquished the points lead again, padding his advantage to 41 on Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi and 42 on Pagenaud entering Sunday.
“Josef is a pro,” Penske said. “He led throughout this whole season, came off right away with victories. I know he was on edge a little bit, but I know he's glad it's over.”
Newgarden finished 25 points ahead of Pagenaud, 33 in front of Rossi and with 63 more than five-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing.
"Josef, a great champion. You can see it in his eyes,” Penske said. “You could see it the first time he won with us, and with Will and Simon, who just had an outstanding season, when you think about three wins and certainly the Indy 500 is the crown jewel that all of us want to have every year.”
Just like that, it was time to turn the page and think about next year. That’s how the ultra-competitive Penske is wired.
He smiled when asked how long he would savor his latest championship.
“Well, I’ve got to go to work (on Monday),” Penske said.