By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
With the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 serving as the first of two double-points races of the year, there’s a lot more than just a place on the Borg Warner trophy at stake for the Verizon IndyCar Series field.
But while he can’t ignore the potential risk, defending series champion Josef Newgarden isn’t worrying about points heading into what could potentially be a career-defining race.
“You really don’t think about it here until after the fact,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of those things that’s in the back of your head. You think this could really help, or put us in a hole. But you can’t focus on that.”
Instead Newgarden has placed his focus on the thing that matters most at Indianapolis – his machine.
“The whole month you have to focus on your car, and what you need from your car,” he said. “It’s now about getting in the race and you thinking about points. It’s about tuning that race car. Every stint, every set of tires. If it’s not good, how do we make it good? How do we win this race?
“That’s got to be the thought process until the very end, and the points shake out how they do. It’s just one of those deals where when you come out of it you hope it worked out. Because when it does it helps you a lot in the end game for the championship.”
Newgarden has been on both sides of the Indy 500 points shakeup in recent years.
In 2016 the Tennessean jumped from 12th to fourth with a third-place run in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’ effectively inserting himself into the championship picture after spending the first two months of the IndyCar season mired in the mid-pack.
He would stay there for the rest of the year, falling no further down than fifth in the standings through the end of his final season with Ed Carpenter Racing despite suffering injuries in a vicious crash during the soon-to-be rain-delayed June race at Texas Motor Speedway.
The Team Penske newcomer’s 2017 saw the opposite Month of May experience – a sharp drop. Newgarden finished a disappointing 19th in last year’s 500-mile run at the Brickyard, a result that proved to be his worst of the year. The run dropped Newgarden to seventh in the standings – his worst position leaving any race outside of the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, where he slotted in eighth – and trapped him with a deficit that would require seven top-two results in the final 11 races to overcome.
Now in his second year with Penske, Newgarden entered the Month of May with the championship lead after winning two of the first four events of the season.
The 27-year-old is in great position to increase his advantage on Sunday. He’ll roll off fourth, on the inside of Row 2.
One thing that could prove to be a challenge are the new aero kits. Even after nearly two weeks of practice and data acquisition, no one knows exactly what to expect from them heading into race day.
“It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster,” Newgarden said of the cars. “I think with one car it’s fine, it’s not been a big deal. Two cars is still okay.
“As soon as you introduce a third or more, it has become very tricky. And I think everyone has struggled to complete passes deep in the field.”
Newgarden believes one key to success will be staying up front, where the package performs more like the Dallara DW12s utilized since 2012.
“If you get yourself buried 10 or 12 places back, it’s tough to move,” he said. “It’s tough to get runs, tough to make something happen in the corner.
“I think the back of the pack might shift a little bit from last year, but the front will look very similar. You’re going to see a lot of moving around for the lead. I don’t think that’s going to change. I don’t think anyone’s really going to check out.”