It’s only been two years since Josef Newgarden won his first IndyCar championship, but his deepened appreciation for what goes into winning a title was evident in his emotional display after securing title No. 2 at Laguna Seca on Sunday.
“I don’t know why, but [this one] feels more special,” he said. “It really hit me. It just really, really hit me on the in-lap. I don’t know why. I was just so emotional. I didn’t quite get that way in the first one. I don’t know if you don’t have quite the respect for it, or what it is.
“When you’re in a season, those opportunities come every single week, but to win a championship, it doesn’t come every week. That opportunity seldom is there, and if it is there, you really want to capitalize on it because you never know if you’re going to get that again, and I think you really realize that the more years you do this.
“I think this one just felt like it was more ours to lose. It was more ours to give away. I thought it was our year to win, and if we didn’t, it was just going to hurt a lot. Just the effort would have been… not for nothing, but it just would have felt pretty bad to throw away what we had put together all season.”
Newgarden led the points for almost the entire year; a campaign fueled by a field-high four victories and an average finishing position of 5.6. But the vagaries of the double-points system meant that he still came into the final race with three mathematical rivals for the championship, and not a lot of wiggle room if things went wrong on race day.
“I’m just happy it’s done with, to be honest with you,” he admitted. “It’s just such a stressful deal with double points. I hated it. I hated thinking about it, and I know we didn’t build up enough of a gap to make it super-easy on ourselves, and I was just kind of dreading it, to be honest with you.
“Just didn’t know what was going to happen today, and I just wanted to make sure we secured the championship because I felt like our guys deserved it. Everyone works really hard in this paddock. It doesn’t matter which team or what driver you are. I think everyone works really hard. I’m pretty intimate with my guys and know how hard they work personally, and I just wanted them to be rewarded with the championship. That was weighing on me a lot.
“I was just happy we were able to get through today. It was kind of a chaotic event. There were moments where I didn’t think it was going to go our way. We kind of set a strategy and stuck to it, and I don’t know that it was working out part way through, but then you saw towards the end, the way things were positioned, it ended up being OK, which made me really pleased. But I think we were trying to cover our bases as a team.”
That strategy was essentially to cover Rossi — his closest points rival coming into the weekend, albeit with just a single point more than Simon Pagenaud — regardless of what else was happening on the track. This played to Newgarden’s status as points leader by neutralizing the driver that appeared to be his biggest threat going into the race, and also allowed Penske to hedge its bets by having Pagenaud in the position to win the championship position if Newgarden’s day turned sour.
That was cause for some anxiety on Newgarden’s part when he and Rossi began to fall back while Pagenaud was on a march forward.
“I’ll be honest with you, I thought we were going down a rabbit hole that wasn’t the right hole to go down,” Newgarden said. “It was just we had set a plan as a group to win the championship as a team, and however the strategy was going to play out was going to dictate who won the championship today.
“We were shadowing Rossi. That’s what I was doing. There were a lot of moments where I think I could have blown by him and I didn’t, and I just really tried to just stay around him all day, and in some ways that’s really good because we were right there with him; but then in other ways he could suck us into a bad situation, and there was parts of the race where I thought that was happening.
“I thought, you know, we had set out the routine that this is what I’m going to do and this doesn’t seem like it may be working for us, specifically, but if that wasn’t going to be the case, then the most important thing would have been for Simon to win the championship.
“Yeah, I had my doubts today, but I just followed protocol, listened to my guys, and they haven’t steered me wrong all year. And they didn’t steer me wrong today.”