Josef Newgarden didn’t need to say a word. Team Penske president Tim Cindric knew his driver was antsy, to say the least.
The job as Newgarden’s race strategist has included pulling the reins sometimes, which means Cindric is on the radio reminding his driver to “Be smart.”
When a couple of cars passed Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet during Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, it’s not in his nature to relinquish track position without a fight.
But on this race day, the big picture mattered most. That meant Newgarden finishing near his closest title contenders in the double-points race so that he could clinch his second NTT IndyCar Series championship.
Newgarden finished eighth, which was enough to add a 2019 ring to another earned two years ago. He will be officially honored as the champion tonight at the Victory Lap Celebration in Indianapolis.
“When you look at this year, having to face the race not being all-out and let’s go, that’s really frustrating for him not to go,” Cindric said as he walked to the victory celebration Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. “He told me early in the race, he was really ticked off that he couldn’t go.”
In the past, Newgarden couldn’t help but be aggressive. Less than two months ago, the 28-year-old Tennessean was reminded that instinct can be costly.
On the last lap of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, Newgarden was in fourth place and on the verge of adding to a 29-point series lead on Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. But convinced he could improve upon that margin, he made an ill-advised passing attempt and bumped with Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport. Newgarden slid off course and his engine stalled.
Just like that, a 14th-place finish reduced Newgarden’s lead to 16 points.
“I mean, I know better than that,” Newgarden said Sunday. “I knew when I did it, I knew better. It was like, ‘Come on.’ But I can't help myself sometimes. I've said that before. My natural instinct is to always want to go for more, go forward or get the maximum position, and sometimes you have to tell yourself ‘No, that's not the right thing to do.’ And so I forced that. I knew it immediately, I said, when I did it, that was forced and stupid.
“So it wasn't a wake-up call, it was just for me a blip, an unnecessary blip. It would have made today a lot easier if we didn't have that blip, but it's impossible every year to not make a couple mistakes, and I've made mine this year.”
Cindric praised Newgarden’s patience on Sunday. Because the driver stayed smart and didn’t get caught up in the heat of the moment, he was rewarded with the title.
“Year one, I don’t think he would have understood or believed that,” Cindric said of 2017. “Now, he’s obviously got that figured out.”
That was the plan all along. Cindric didn’t really need to pull on those reins this day.
“He knew what he needed to do,” Cindric said. “We just managed relativity there. We didn’t have the fastest car, but we knew we probably wouldn’t need the fastest car, we just needed one that was consistent and to execute all day.
“The whole day, you’re wondering what you need to do differently or where you are. It’s not like us to be satisfied with being eighth. You’re just trying to get to the end.”
Newgarden finished 25 points ahead of teammate and 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud and 33 points in front of Rossi, who had to settle for being a series runner-up for the second consecutive year.
What made this championship special was Newgarden leading almost the entire season. He won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and only relinquished the lead after one race. Pagenaud took a one-point lead after winning May’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge to complete a sweep of Indianapolis Motor Speedway races, starting with the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the road course.
Newgarden rebounded to win the next race at Detroit and started building a cushion.
“They’re all satisfying, but to be able to lead from the first race and almost all the way through the season, that’s a whole different thing,” Cindric said.
Just like in 2017, Newgarden won four races and finished second twice. Despite “a couple mistakes,” he proved to be the season’s most consistent driver.
“When you're in a race season, you have an opportunity every week to win a race, but you don't have an opportunity every week to win a championship,” Newgarden said. “So today was purely about that. … I don't think it was like our typical drive. I think normally we can blitz the field when we need to on a race style, and today was not that style.”
Newgarden is convinced the lessons learned and reinforced in 2019 can make him better in 2020.
“I'd say in a lot of ways we can be better than what we've done this year,” he said. “I think we can put together a better season than what we did this season, and that makes me feel pretty good going forward.
“I think we did a good job. I think I did a relatively good job, but I can do better. I think as a team we can always do better, but me personally I can do better than what I've done this year, so we're going to focus on trying to turn it up a notch next season.”