SALINAS, Cailf – Josef Newgarden had a 41 point advantage heading into the NTT IndyCar Series season finale at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca this weekend. Despite that, the Team Penske driver was never comfortable. See, he felt like if anything could go wrong over the course of the weekend, it would happen to him.
Despite an insurmountable lead over the field, the double points frightened him. He could never relax. In fact, the closer and closer we got to the end of the season, the more and more worried Newgarden became.
I get it too.
Newgarden, started 2019 off with a win. That gave him the points lead. He’d hold onto the top spot in the championship standings following every race with the exception of one. He earned this championship but one bad day in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey could erase all that he’s done in 2019.
That scared him.
“I’m just happy it’s done with, to be honest with you,” Newgarden said following this second championship in three years. “I’ve been dreading the last couple weeks because I don’t think it really hits you until you get finally to Laguna or after Portland I should say, two weeks to go, because then you really realize the points situation.
“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 was 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 okay, which made me really pleased. But I think we were trying to cover our bases as a team.
“The most important thing was for a Team Penske car to win the championship, and that’s the way we devised our strategy, and you hope it works out in your favor, but ultimately what’s important is the team winning the championship, and that was our plan. Just really proud of everybody. I’m just so thankful to have the opportunity, and I’m just happy it’s over with, to be honest with you. I can’t wait to go into this off-season. I think it’s going to be a nice little rest before next year.”
See, Newgarden’s strategy was to play it careful. They wanted to minimize mistakes and knew that Scott Dixon was too far out to do any damage. Then, it was between Alexander Rossi and a teammate in Simon Pagenaud for the title. So, the plan was simple, Newgarden focus on Rossi and Pagenaud go out and try to win the race.
May the best man between Pagenaud and Newgarden win.
Pagenaud finished fourth, Rossi sixth and Newgarden eighth. Strategy goes to Newgarden. Despite that, Newgarden was worried that they made a wrong move for doing that.
“During the race I was like, I don’t like this. I don’t like the way I’m running this race,” Newgarden said. “But today was the championship day. I think someone asked that earlier, kind of touched on it. Yeah, it was an odd race. I felt like we were going — I said this, too, I felt like we were going down a rabbit hole and it was just the wrong place to be going because I could see the writing on the wall where it was headed.
“I was doing one thing. My goal was to shadow Rossi, and that’s either going to be in my favor or it’s not. And it looked like it was coming out of that favor, that sort of strategy. But I had to stick to the plan. Our goose was kind of cooked after the first stint. It was like, look, you’ve made your bed, this is what it is.
“I do think we encountered a problem today, though. I don’t know what happened. My first stint was very good. The car felt normal. Rossi was really slow in front of me towards the end, and I was just doing my game. I was shadowing him. I was nervous he was going to wreck me if I tried to pass him. It sort of seemed like it.
“But then the second stint, as soon as I went to black tires, it was like something just happened. It was like we dropped a bunch of downforce or a shock went out or something like that, and I was really struggling with the car, but I was still keeping with my objective to shadow Rossi to the finish.
“So I think something might have been going on there. I don’t know what it was. But I also think the way the strategy was starting to fall — really Rossi’s strength is what was hurting us. He wasn’t very strong, either, and because I was following him and just trying to match where he was, it was kind of dragging me back at times. I think in the first stint we could have made a lot more hay. I think we could have passed him and just been up the road in a very different position.
“I told everyone, look, today was — when you’re in a race season, you have an opportunity every week to win a race, but you don’t have an opportunity every week to win a championship. So today was purely about that. And I would agree with you, I don’t think it was like our typical drive. I think normally we can blitz the field when we need to on a race style, and today was not that style.”
That’s why Newgarden was so elated when he crossed the finish line. Tears of joy began to fall as the normally non emotional Newgarden couldn’t stop crying of happiness.
“Yeah, I don’t know why, but it feels more special,” Newgarden said of the emotion. “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. Maybe the way you said it is more appropriate. You just have more perspective on how difficult it is to be — you can win a race every week.
“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.”