Josef Newgarden has had an up and down second full season in IndyCar. He has had his good days and his bad days, but the good days show that there is a very bright future for the young driver from Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Newgarden’s path to the IZOD IndyCar Series includes running for 3 years in the Skip Barber Racing School series and eventually migrating overseas to run in Formula Ford, Formula Audi and eventually running a year in GP3. “I was only in Europe for only 2 years, but I learned a lot and enjoyed what I learned,” said Newgarden. “It was an experience I just couldn’t pass up as a young driver in America.” He returned to America in 2011 to run for the Firestone Indy Lights powerhouse Sam Schmidt Motorsports, where he picked up 5 wins and took the championship as a rookie.
Heading into Baltimore, Newgarden had a bit of a rough stretch. Finishing no better than 11th after posting a then career best 5th place finish at Pocono, Newgarden headed into Baltimore hoping for a good result. “We needed to turn everything around and finally have a weekend where nothing went wrong,” he said.
The weekend started off with Newgarden making his first Firestone Fast Six during qualifying on Saturday, eventually qualifying in the 5th position, his best result of the year. When the green flag flew, Newgarden hung around the top 5, but at the end of the first stint, he began to fade. “I think I got a bunch of pickup on my tires when I tried to pass Justin Wilson and picked up a bunch of debris on my tires and I could not clean them off. I had zero grip in the race car and ended up sliding back a bit because we were trying to stay out and make our fuel window and almost hit the wall.”
After he made his pit stop, Newgarden found himself in 19th place and had a mountain to climb. At the same time, his car developed an issue with the brakes, which is never good on a street circuit. “It was kind of a mix of being aggressive and trying to pass people and get back up, but also trying to get the brakes to start working again and keep them cool.” He made a few moves from there, but was caught up in one of many cautions in the second half of the race on lap 48 but the damage was minor and he stayed in the hunt.
With the seemingly endless chain of cautions shuffling the leaderboard, Newgarden stayed out of trouble, and found himself in 5th place when the green flag flew for the final time on lap 66. With the leaders mixing it up on lap 69, Newgarden leapfrogged from 5th to 3rd and made easy prey out of Marco Andretti going into turn 1 of the following lap to take 2nd place. Newgarden made a run at Simon Pagenaud, but the issue with his brakes returned and he had to settle for 2nd.
“Once we had a couple laps charging at Pagenaud and it was hard to finish the race without any brakes. It was about keeping the position and keeping Bourdais behind us at that point,” Newgarden says.
The 2nd place finish at Baltimore is one of many good runs that Newgarden has shown this season. At Sao Paulo, his talent really showed. Newgarden started in 25th place, and with help of some luck and strategy was able to move into the top 5 and by the end of the race was challenging Takuma Sato for the win. Sato raced him very hard, making his car wide down the long backstretch. While many said that Sato overdid it, Newgarden says that it was all in a day of racing.
“It seemed like everyone else had a lot more of an issue with it than I did, which was kind of funny because then I didn’t have to say anything about it.
I drove Takuma pretty easy at that point, I didn’t attack as hard as I could’ve, I had a limited window to get by him because Hinchcliffe and everyone else was going to catch up to us.
I didn’t seize the opportunity very well, if I would have driven Takuma harder, I could have gotten by him regardless of what he was doing. I think that situation wasn’t an issue for me from a driving standpoint, I think just what race and considering how last year went I was pretty cautious with the way I was driving him. I was okay with that, we needed a good run that weekend and I didn’t want to chance it and throw it away, it is hard to do that as a driver because you always want to be flat out and go for a victory whenever you can. At that point it was a better decision to run him clean and not but myself in a bad position.”
In addition to his run at Baltimore, Newgarden’s results have been an improvement from last season. Last season, he had 6 DNFs, four of those were due to crashes and two were due to mechanical issues and had an average finish of 18.2. This season, he has 6 top tens and 3 top 5s and has cut the DNF total down to 2, which both were due to mechanical issues. Also, in a handful of races such as Barber, Sao Paulo and Detroit Race 1, Newgarden started near the back and worked his way into the top 10 by the end of the day.
Newgarden says that there have been several reasons why he thinks that this year has been better.
“I’ve definitely driven the car better, he said. “I’ve driven to car to the limit, and never really over the limit and we haven’t had any crashes. There’s been no issues on that side and that has been great. Issues wise, I think we are level with what we were last year we are doing a better job of getting everything everything going.
Performance wise, I think we’ve been level as what we were last year and we’ve had everything else from an execution standpoint go a little bit better this year. When you couple that with the way I’ve driven the car better, I think that is what resulted in how we’ve ran.
Also, at Sonoma Raceway, Lucas Luhr joined Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for a one off deal, which Newgraden believes helped him.
“Lucas is a really cool guy, he is very helpful, very technical, very experienced, he said. “Over everything else, it was nice having to just have another person driving the car beside me that I can talk to him about things and get feedback and advice. It was good from a team standpoint as well, we were able to make a little bit more headway that weekend. With running 2 cars, you can go in 2 directions and figure out twice as much.”
Working with Sarah Fisher has also been a great experience for Newgarden. “Sarah, being a former driver, she understands a little bit more than some others would from a driving standpoint what is required,” he says. “She tries to watch out for me as she can, which is great. Just her being a previous driver is the biggest difference and her being an owner is a huge help.”