By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
Motorsports Tribune reviews the season of the top 12 drivers from the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Our list continues with the fifth-place finisher, Josef Newgarden.
Josef Newgarden, No. 1 Hitachi/Verizon Chevrolet
- 2018: 5th in the championship
- Wins: 3, Top 5: 6, Top 10: 14, Poles: 4, Laps Led: 485
- Best Finish: 1st (Phoenix, Barber, Road America)
Josef Newgarden’s 2018 matched the highs of his 2017 championship season, but a lack of podiums and season-long consistency kept the Tennessean from mounting a successful title defense at year’s end.
Newgarden opened the year in championship form, scoring a pair of victories at ISM Raceway and Barber Motorsports Park and roaring into the Month of May with the points lead. His results were inconsistent and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis ended with a disappointing 11th-place finish, but Newgarden still entered the Indianapolis 500 atop the standings with everything to race for.
At that point the Team Penske star was a favorite to become the first driver to successfully defend their title since Dario Franchitti won three-straight championships from 2009-11. But from Indy on the 27-year-old’s performance took a step backward.
Newgarden’s Indy 500 effort was a quiet one, with the champ coming home in eighth and being overshadowed by teammate Will Power. He faired no better at Belle Isle, slotting in ninth and 15th one year after averaging a 3.0 finish in the doubleheader. Texas Motor Speedway brought another disappointing run, and Newgarden dropped from first to a distant fifth in the standings.
Road America offered a reprieve for Newgarden, with the Tennessean leading 53 of 55 laps en-route to a dominant victory. The run pushed the defending champ back into the title conversation, elevating him within 50 points of leader Scott Dixon in fourth with seven races remaining to close the gap.
But the Wisconsin trip would ultimately serve as a high point in the midst of a trying summer. Newgarden failed to crack the podium for the remainder of the year, slotting between fourth and 10th in each of the final seven races. The stretch dropped Newgarden from the championship conversation, relegating him to a fifth-place finish in the standings at season’s end.
All told Newgarden’s year was a tale of two seasons. The opening 10 races were filled with inconsistency, with three wins but a combined finish of 10.0 in the other seven events. Newgarden’s final seven races played out with better consistency — he averaged a 6.71 finish and finished no worse than 10th — but the veteran failed to match the highs of the year’s early months, finishing no better than fourth.
Even at his best, Newgarden might not have been able to contend with Dixon’s dominant championship drive. The New Zealander’s 4.2 average finish was nearly two positions better than Newgarden’s career-best 6.1 from last year. But the Penske ace’s struggles with podiums and consistency kept him from having even an outside chance.
Newgarden’s 2018 still wasn’t a bad year by any stretch. His qualifying efforts improved mightily, with a 5.2 average start that was a full 2.7-position improvement from 2017. He led a career-best 485 laps, and his three wins were only one less than last season’s four.
For the majority of drivers the paddock a three-win, fifth-place campaign would be a feat worth celebrating. The only metric Newgarden’s championship defense failed to meet was the bar he set for himself with 2017’s breakout performance.
Team Penske’s newest IndyCar addition remains a threat to win on any given weekend. If Newgarden can maintain his season-ending consistency and regain the speed necessary for podiums, he should return to the championship conversation in 2019.