Newgarden: Indianapolis is a tough place to tame
Josef Newgarden has been IndyCar’s most consistent winner for the past eight seasons, but has yet to win the Big One, namely the Indy 500.
His 22 trips to victory lane is a series high. He has won two or more races for six consecutive years and is chasing his third league championship in six seasons.
But when the 31-year-old Tennessean arrives in Indianapolis each May, those impressive feats take a back seat to another agonizing litany of questions about the three most famous words missing from his resume – Indianapolis champ. 500.
“Of course I want to win here, everyone wants to win here, but Indianapolis is a tough place to tame. It’s tough to get it right on that day,” he said before qualifying. 14th for Sunday’s race.
A 500m win would certainly cement Newgarden’s claim as one of the greatest riders of his generation. To this day, however, the show’s one-time idol continues to relive all the heartbreak he endured at The Brickyard.
Despite consistently placing among the fastest drivers of the month, working for the most successful team in series history and calling a handful of 500 teammates champions with the Penske team, Newgarden continued to fail.
Newgarden has never taken an Indy 500 pole, never driven in victory lane and has only one front-row start
Heck, Newgarden’s best May didn’t even come with Team Penske. In 2016, he started a career-best second and finished a career-best third driving Ed Carpenter.
Roger Penske signed Newgarden the following season and he won in 11 of 15 venues that season with two notable absentee spots – his hometown of Nashville and Indy. He never started or finished higher than fourth for Penske.
“You look at this place and it chooses you and you just have to be ready when it does,” Penske team president Tim Cindric said. “It’s always the same questions until you win. You see it in NASCAR too, with Kyle Busch or Tony Stewart at the Daytona 500.”
Newgarden, like Busch, is lucky. He is still at the peak of his career and remains a feared competitor. But everyone understands that IndyCar success is measured in Indy wins.
Mario Andretti won the 500m in 1969 but started 24 more without winning a second title. His son, Michael, and grandson, Marco, each started 16 more 500s without a win. Michael Andretti’s 42 career wins are No. 4 on the series career list.
In Newgarden’s 10 Indy 500 starts, the first with Sarah Fisher’s team, he had three top 10s and five 12ths or less.
Other drivers understand pressure, of course. Will Power of Australia also had a sterling resume but was 0 out of 10 at Indy before finally winning in 2018.
“It was painful for me because I had won so many races, poles, I had won a championship,” Power said. “I was actually disappointed with my career in 2018 because I know you’re not considered a successful driver unless you won that race.
With victories, however, comes expectations. Ask Scott Dixon
Only AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti have more IndyCar wins than Dixon (51). Foyt’s seven career series titles are one more than Dixon and when the New Zealander put Chip Ganassi Racing on pole for Sunday’s race, Dixon became the second driver to win five Indy poles. Rick Mears won six.
Still, Dixon would almost certainly drop some of those numbers to put a second Baby Borg in his trophy room.
“You always have unfinished business here,” said Dixon, the 2008 winner. “I love this place. It can be cruel sometimes, but I feel very privileged to be here and to be with a team like this one.
A decisive win next weekend would be life changing for Newgarden.
He’d make headlines, hit the interview circuit, maybe even bolster his image as America’s top IndyCar driver. But above all, Newgarden would no longer have to answer all the questions about these three most elusive words.
“I don’t know what a win would mean, I’ve never experienced it,” Newgarden said. “But I see it. When you talk to 500 winners, you know what that means.