Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden’s text to his wife Wednesday evening was light on words but heavy on emotion.

“I just love IMS,” he wrote.

Newgarden crafted the message moments after entering Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time since May when he won his first Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. He admitted to being a bit surprised by how the return impacted him.

“It was very cool,” he said. “I always loved it, always looked forward to coming here, and any time I’ve spent here has been great. But it now has an elevated feel to it. How can it not?

“(Being here) was hard to top before, but it’s definitely elevated now.”

And with that, Newgarden’s stern, competitive face reappeared. Those who know him understand how focused he is when it comes to his profession, and thus it’s not surprising that he isn’t interested this weekend in examining the Borg-Warner Trophy, which will soon include his likeness. There are still four NTT INDYCAR SERIES races to attack, a championship to win, and all of that includes this weekend’s Gallagher Grand Prix on the IMS road course (2 p.m. ET, USA Network, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).

Newgarden said there were some around him – he didn’t specify if they were members of his Team Penske crew – that were high-stepping a bit too much for his liking in the weeks after the “500.” Their perspective was, he said, that everything else accomplished this season would be gravy, but he was soured by that.

“No, no, we’ve got work to do,” he insisted. “We can sit back and enjoy what we did at Indy after the season’s done, in the fall, when there’s nothing more we can do to win this championship.”

Even as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou holds a commanding 84-point lead with four races to go, Newgarden is unwilling to concede. He has won 29 series races in a career that has produced two season championships. But what eats at him is three consecutive season runner-up finishes, and that’s his current position. Thus, he’s focused.

“We’re pretty far back, but there’s a window, a window of opportunity,” the driver of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet said. “Whenever there’s a chance, you’ve got to be ready to capitalize on it. So, that’s where we’re at.”

Where Newgarden is now is a lot of work ahead to win Saturday’s 85-lap race. He was in the first group of qualifying, and it was stacked, including Team Penske teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet), a five-time winner at this circuit, and fellow IMS road race winners Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) and Alexander Rossi (No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet). Herta and Rossi have won two of the past three races on this 14-turn, 2.439-mile layout.

Newgarden failed to advance out of the first round and was forced to accept the 19th starting position. He will start 11 positions behind Palou, which presents a big challenge in the challenger’s pursuit of the series leader. Obviously, Newgarden needs to start stacking exceptional results, and Palou needs to incur some bad luck and likely a lot of it. But the mountain to climb is immense, and it must begin Saturday for Newgarden – and other hopefuls -- if it’s going to be achieved.

So far, Palou’s worst finish of the season is an eighth in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. His average finish is 3.25, which is on pace to match Tony Kanaan’s modern-day record of 3.0, set in Kanaan’s championship-winning season in 2004.

Palou, who will start eighth, won the most recent race on the course, the GMR Grand Prix on May 13, driving the No. 10 The American Legion Honda. Newgarden finished seventh.

With the road course victory in May, Palou’s confidence is based on having won at three of the final four venues on the schedule (this one, Portland International Raceway and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where last year he won by more than 30 seconds). Newgarden has won at two of the remaining tracks – here in 2020 and World Wide Technology Raceway, where he has won the past three NTT INDYCAR SERIES races and four overall.

Newgarden said he will keep pedaling to put some pressure on Palou, but he also is realistic. And Saturday’s starting position adds to the difficulty.

“It’s hard to say,” he said of his title chances. “A lot of the season is baked in right now.

“There was a lot that got away from us opportunity-wise this year that would have been helpful at this point. But you know, we are where we are and there’s a sliver of a chance, enough of a chance that we absolutely can still make something happen, so that’s where my focus is.”