Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden’s charge for the Astor Challenge Cup got off to a strong start Friday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca when he led the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice session for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

But two-time series champion Newgarden is refusing to let himself get comfortable.

With a best lap time of 1 minute, 11.712 seconds in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, Newgarden was one of three drivers battling for the Astor Challenge Cup to post a time in the top 10, ahead of Alex Palou in third (1:11.975) and Marcus Ericsson in 10th (1:12.356).

In the last two NTT INDYCAR SERIES races, at World Wide Technology Raceway and Portland International Raceway, the leader of Practice 1 was the eventual winner of the race, with Newgarden at St. Louis and Palou at Portland.

This weekend, Newgarden attributed his fast pace to a Team Penske test in Monterey, California, less than two months ago.

“Our car felt pretty similar,” he said. “We were happy at the test. Overall, we unloaded pretty good. I felt like that matched this morning. Small differences here or there, but for the most part, globally, it felt like the car was in the window.”

While attributing his speed to that test, Newgarden is applying lessons learned last weekend in Portland and not getting ahead of himself in his quest to catch championship leader Palou. He admitted last weekend after showing speed in practice, the team lost its edge for qualifying. That put the team behind for the race, in which Newgarden rallied from the 18th starting position to finish fifth.

He insisted if the No. 2 team wants to gain ground on Palou’s No. 10 car, they need to keep their pace for qualifying and start near the front. Newgarden is third in the series standings, 34 points behind Palou.

“Obviously, things can change quickly,” he said. “In Portland we were pretty sorted out in Practice 1 (fifth fastest), and we choked in qualifying and were pretty far off the pace. That’s the number one thing for us in the No. 2 car, have a consistent run all the way through. If we can do that, we’ll be in the fight.”

Newgarden’s advantage over his rivals extends beyond his speed in the first practice session of the weekend. Unlike Palou and Pato O’Ward, who is second in the standings, Newgarden has previous experience at this racetrack.

In his lone start at the 11-turn, 2.238-mile road course in 2019, Newgarden started fourth and finished eighth. However, this was the racetrack that held the NTT INDYCAR SERIES finale that year, and he clinched his second championship that weekend.

More so than pure experience on the track, Newgarden has competed at the famed racetrack with a championship mindset. Still, Newgarden thinks he’ll need more than that to beat his younger title rivals come Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET, live on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network).

“I think Alex (Palou) has obviously proved he can perform at a track he’s not been at before, as evidenced last weekend in Portland,” he said. “Pato obviously is a very skilled driver, as well. I think highly of both of them.

“I don’t know whether there’s an advantage. I’ve been here once myself in 2019, which you could say is an advantage. I don’t think it is with this crop of guys. I think they’re pretty impressive. I don’t think I have a leg up at all.”

Palou scored his third win of the season last weekend and catapulted into the championship lead by 25 points over O’Ward after entering the weekend down 10 points to his Arrow McLaren SP rival.

Newgarden entered the Portland weekend third in the standings, down just 22 points to then-title leader O’Ward. Leaving the weekend, he was still third, but he now sits 34 points behind Palou, a deficit of 12 points over the course of the weekend.

To make up those 12 points and more, Newgarden will rely on driver experience, which includes knowing how to manhandle the power steering-less machines at this course on a dirty racing surface, as many drivers go off course into the dusty run-off areas due to the precision required for a fast lap. That, he says, will be the biggest difference this weekend over a test, in which both Palou and O’Ward have partaken here.

“It’s just incredibly difficult to understand what the car’s doing or if you want to improve it, what happened run to run, then the dust gets kicked up on the track a lot when you have 27 cars,” he said. “We didn’t have it so much at the test because there were not as many cars continually going off.

“You had a lot of cars here that were just constantly kicking up dirt onto the curbing. It makes it difficult to read the car here and understand where things are at. But I think that’s part of the challenge at these types of tracks. You have to be really good at it.”

Newgarden might not let himself get comfortable in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, but his nine previous seasons of experience in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES over Palou’s one year and O’Ward’s two could be the edge he needs to position himself for a shot at his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship next weekend on the Streets of Long Beach.