Maybe now Josef Newgarden can exhale.
It’s difficult for those of us on the outside to understand the pressure that builds around a driver of Newgarden’s caliber, much less a Team Penske veteran. The expectations that a multi-time NTT INDYCAR champion should win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge are real, fair or otherwise. This is Newgarden’s 12th season in the series and seventh with Roger Penske’s organization, and the pressure was building on him to score a victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Crossing Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s finish line with the lead Sunday releases much of that pressure even as Newgarden, twice a series champion, downplayed it.
“The only thing I feel is the weight of what everyone else wants to put on you because they think the Indy 500 has to be won,” he said. “I think about all the drivers that probably should have won this race that never won it, and it doesn’t make a difference whether they won it or not. Their career is still fantastic. It’s more just a shame that it didn’t work out for them.”
Newgarden needed 12 starts in the “500” to reach Victory Lane, and he should know he’s in good company with drivers who took years to get there. Newgarden tied Sam Hanks and Tony Kanaan with the most such starts (12), and Johnny Rutherford and Will Power needed 11. Those that needed 10 were Tom Sneva and Al Unser Jr. Michael Andretti is considered the best driver never to have won the “500.”
Since 2000, there are only two series champions who got the chance to compete at Indy -- Sebastien Bourdais and Alex Palou – who do not have their likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Palou has finished second and fourth in his four starts.
The word Newgarden used most often is “relief.”
“You can have a good qualifying, you have a good Fast Friday, you can have a good Carb Day,” he said. “But if you’re not good on race day, it’s all for nothing. That’s what makes Indy so terribly pressure filled but terribly difficult, too.
“I feel overjoyed for the amount of work we put in this month. On the flipside, when you don’t win it, that’s what makes it so demoralizing. You pack up (after three weeks at IMS) and … it just breaks your heart. It’s broken my heart every year. I just feel amazing now that it didn’t break my heart this year.”
Newgarden becomes the 14th driver to win the “500” for Team Penske, the seventh since Helio Castroneves won the first of his two in 2001.
At age 32, Newgarden figures to have many more chances to add to his total, and he will be among next year’s favorites as Team Penske chases its record-extending 20th victory in the event. Get this: More than half of the race winners in history – 55 of the previous 106 – were older than Newgarden is now.
One more fact about Newgarden: He became the third former champion of what is now known as INDY NXT by Firestone to win the “500.” The others were Kanaan and Scott Dixon.
That Setup Decision
Something overlooked in recent days was Team Penske’s decision to switch out its setup for Carb Day.
Newgarden had posted the fastest lap time in last month’s series open test at IMS yet was using another setup for most of the official practice and qualifying. As Newgarden couldn’t qualify higher than 17th and was 24th in Monday’s post-qualifying practice, he agreed with engineer Luke Mason to switch back to the open test setup.
“We basically just went back to our test car from the April test, where our car was so good,” Newgarden said. “We had never run that car again in May, and we were both looking at each other laughing, like, ‘What are we doing?’
“We left that test and said, if we have this car, we’re winning the ‘500.’ That’s what I said. But we never ran the car (setup) until (Carb Day). We ran that car, and I said, ‘OK, you did a good job – we’re going to be just fine here.’”
‘Dragon’ Rules Again
It appears the race leader driving from side to side in the final laps of the “500” is here to stay, at least for now.
The move was introduced to the event in 2019 when Simon Pagenaud held off Alexander Rossi, and Marcus Ericsson took it to another level last year to keep Pato O’Ward at bay.
Sunday, Newgarden again took the line of cars back and forth coming off Turn 4 to beat Ericsson to the checkered flag. Newgarden said it has become a necessity to win the race.
“Look, it’s impossible to not use that because of the ease it is to follow one car,” he said. “It got even tougher this year.
“I think sitting in first place was even more difficult that what we’ve seen in years past, even just last year, and when I was able to get by (Ericsson) on the back straight I was actually really surprised how much momentum he still had in (Turns) 3 and 4. He was like super close and had a good run coming off (Turn) 4 and with that, I thought, I’ve got to be as aggressive as possible to not let him by.”
Said Ericsson of Newgarden’s move: “You’ve got do what you’ve got to do to win this race. I knew he was going to do it. Still tried to get a run on him, but it was not enough. He did it well, yeah.”
Newgarden said he was willing to drive anywhere short of going through pit lane to win.
“The tow effect to just the first car was even more difficult than last year,” he said. “You were a sitting duck if you were in the lead.”
Ferrucci Lifts AJ Foyt Racing
Santino Ferrucci’s third-place finish was a huge emotional lift for AJ Foyt Racing, which in recent weeks has lost two prominent figures: A.J. Foyt’s wife, Lucy, and Drew Fornoro, the husband of the team’s longtime public relations representative, Anne Fornoro. Their daughter, Marie, also works for the team.
“I know we had some special people looking over us today,” team president Larry Foyt said after the race. “We dodged a couple of wrecks that were close. But man, we had something for them. We just came up a little short. It wasn’t for a lack of effort.”
Ferrucci led 11 laps and might have won the race had he been able to clear Newgarden before the caution waved on Lap 196. Instead, Newgarden got to line up behind Ericsson, the race leader, on the deciding restart and was in the best position to win the race.
Foyt said Ferrucci, who is in his first year with the team, is a charger.
“Even in adversity, even when things aren’t great, he just freakin’ goes on Sunday,” Foyt said. “He’s just a racer. It’s good to work with him.”
Odds and Ends
· Ericsson became the eighth defending champion to finish second the next year. The others were Louis Meyer (1929), Wilbur Shaw (1938), Rodger Ward (1060), Jim Clark (1966), Al Unser (1972), Johnny Rutherford (1975) and Castroneves (2003). Only Shaw and Rutherford won the next year’s race (1939 and 1976, respectively) after finishing second.
· Sunday’s race was exceptionally competitive, with 14 leaders and no driver leading more than the 39 of O’Ward. Four drivers led at least 30 laps (O’Ward, Alex Palou, Felix Rosenqvist and Ericsson), and there were 52 lead changes, third-most ever.
· Newgarden led only five laps, but four of them were in the final eight of the race. His total was the third-fewest for a race winner. Joe Dawson led two in 1912, and Dan Wheldon led only the final lap in 2011.
· Dixon and Kanaan were not among those who led. Therefore, they did not extend the record they share for most “500s” led, with 15. If this indeed is Kanaan’s final race, he finished in 14th place with 352 career laps led in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
· Will Power led one lap to push his career total to 10 races led, tying him with Bobby Unser’s total.
· Seventeen drivers finished on the lead lap.
· Newgarden became the 10th driver to win the race using No. 2. That’s still the second-most number in race history, trailing only No. 3, which has won 11 times. Scott McLaughlin finished 14th in Sunday’s race with No. 3.
· Newgarden became the third driver to win from the 17th starting positions. The others were the shared 1941 victory of Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose, with Eddie Cheever winning from that position in 1998. Only 12 race winners have started further back in the order.
· Castroneves extended his record for completing 500-mile races at IMS, now with 17. He has finished 21 of his 23 races here.
· Ed Carpenter finished 20th in his 20th start in the event. He moved into the top 10 in career “500” starts. That total ranks fourth among drivers in Sunday’s field behind Castroneves (23), Kanaan (22) and Dixon (21). George Snider (22) and Gary Bettenhausen (21) are atop the list of drivers who made starts without winning.
· A record six former winners led the race, surpassing the prior record of five set in 1980, 1981 and 1993.