Josef Newgarden arrives at this weekend’s Indianapolis Grand Prix on an almighty roll. He’s off to a career-best start to the season, his eighth in NTT IndyCar Series competition, with a win to open the year and subsequent finishes of second, fourth, and second again at the most recent round.
Entering the month of May, Team Penske’s 2017 title winner holds a handy 28-point lead in the drivers’ championship over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. From the outside, Newgarden has the look of someone who’s found a new level of focus and effectiveness in the hunt for his second IndyCar crown.
So, what has the young American changed to reach this new peak? Absolutely nothing.
“Honestly, it feels same as last year,” he told RACER. “It’s just that things are flowing pretty well for the most part. I think our speed…has probably moved around a little bit. Our street course cars are better, but our road course cars haven’t been as good at the moment, so that speed has moved a little bit from last year.
“But what we’re doing on my car, what the team’s doing, we’re all doing the same stuff, it’s just there’s nothing really biting us on our car. There’s no odd yellows at the wrong point of the race; we’re picking the right strategy. We haven’t had any snags, I guess. So hopefully that’s the case all year. Kind of like [2018 IndyCar champion] Scott Dixon had last year, where nothing really seemed to go wrong.”
A master of deflecting praise, Newgarden insists he’s the smallest contributor to the No. 2 Chevy entry’s success so far in 2019.
“I really don’t think it’s me,” he says. “I’m driving just the same as last year. If anything, maybe every year I’m getting a touch more methodical. I could definitely buy into that. Every year, I think you get a touch more methodical. I think Dixon’s no different. Every single year he’s been in this sport, he’s gotten a little bit more patient, a little bit more methodical.
“Maybe that’s part of it, but I’m doing a lot of the same stuff. I’m still aggressive, when I need to be. I’m doing everything I did last year, honestly, but so far, we haven’t had anything crazy pop up where we’ve been bit really bad. But we have a long way to go, I could still make a mistake. We’re only four races deep, so there’s a lot of room here to see where things go.”
The chemistry between Newgarden and his new race engineer, Canada’s Gavin Ward, has also contributed to the early results.
“He’s good,” he agrees. “To be honest, I’ve not had a bad engineer since I started in IndyCar. Nathan O’Rourke, Jeremy Milless, Brian Campe, and Gavin Ward. I’ve had the best engineers. You’re giving me the best engineers, what do you expect?”
“He’s a superstar. Look, the guy’s calm, collected, seasoned. He’s not seasoned in IndyCar necessarily, but he’s seasoned. He’s raced many years, this is the same deal in F1, he knows how these cars work. We have zero issues. We’ve a got rock star crew chief in Travis Law, and I can say that about everyone on the team.”
Newgarden’s quest to earn back-to-back championships last year for Team Penske was derailed when a string of disappointing finishes, starting at the Indy GP, left him down in fifth in the final standings. To improve his odds of getting off to a strong start and maintaining it through the month of May, the 28-year-old revealed the one key change he’s made – possibly the key to his good fortunes in 2019.
“I’m trying to be a little bit more selfish with my time, and it’s to simplify things for me a bit,” he said. Team Penske’s got a lot of obligations, which I enjoy filling. We’re so thrilled with the partners that we have, but when it becomes too much with appearances and obligations away from the car, I say it now. You have to.
“And this year, I’ve got a lot going on. I moved to Nashville. Kind of back to old school, living in a one-bedroom apartment with my fiancée. It feels like old-school racing days. But I’m having fun. I’m having a good time, and we’ve got a great thing going this season. Right now, it’s all clicking. But it can change in a heartbeat.
“And not to look at this negatively, but you could go out of the month of May and say, ‘What the heck’s going on with Newgarden?’ And we could be eighth in points. It’s like that. So you’ve got stay on top of it, but so far, everything looks good.”