By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
MONTEREY, California – Tears of joy was the best way to describe Josef Newgarden’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
That’s because for the second time in the last three years, the 28-year-old Henderson, Tennessee native is the NTT IndyCar Series champion, beating Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud by 25 points.
After a grinding 17-round championship trail, Newgarden was emotionally worn out and just thrilled, where he led the points in all but one race, is finally done with.
“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.”
Done he may be with the 2019 season, Newgarden knew that he wanted to put up a fight and give Roger Penske his 16th INDYCAR title.
When it was all set in done, he was indeed the man who hoisted the Astor Cup as his fiancee, friends and family, and of course, his entire No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet squad celebrated with the new champ.
“I 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,” Newgarden said. “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.”
Penske, who takes the top-two spots in the final title standings, said Newgarden is a great champion to represent his elite team that’s won the Indianapolis 500 with Pagenaud this year, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title with Joey Logano last November and Scott McLaughlin eviscerating the V8 Supercar competition.
“You can see it in his eyes,” Penske said. “You could see it the first time he won with us, and with Will (Power) and Simon, who just had an outstanding season, when you think about three wins and certainly the Indy 500 is the crown jewel that all of us want to have every year.
“I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect today, and I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out. His family was there, his mom, his grandmother, she came all the way from Denmark to see this race, so it was pretty special for her.”
The ultimate pressure from Pagenaud and year-long title rival Alexander Rossi and was evident as he struggled tremendously with his stints, which made his 90-lap journey an odd one and at one point, a respectable top-10 might’ve not been enough.
“During the race I was like, I don’t like this. I don’t like the way I’m running this race. But today was the championship day,” Newgarden on his race mindset. “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.”
Newgarden’s problems after a normal first stint to Rossi’s slow one was apparent while continuing shadowing the 2016 Indy 500 champion.
Then his second stint was plagued with a decline on car performance and what hurt him against Rossi, who finished sixth, was the strength on team strategy.
Knowing the complicated situation, he commented that an opportunity of winning the championship doesn’t come every week and that was an approach he had to follow.
“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,” Newgarden said. “So today was purely about that. I think normally we can blitz the field when we need to on a race style, and today was not that style.”
Penske said Newgarden’s maturity from his first championship in 2017 to the next is proven based on how he handled the pressure.
When the task was accomplished in Monterey Sunday, Penske knows that a driver climbing on top of the racing mountain once again, like Newgarden, is far rewarding.
“I think when you’re young, you just don’t understand the elements and the pressure, and as you mature, you start to understand the circumstances that you’re in, the things that can go wrong. And I think Josef has understood that, a lot of pressure with his new sponsor, with Hitachi,” Penske said.
“So when you start putting that all together, and Brad (Keselowski) knows that, Kyle Busch knows it, they all know it. They give you that strong-looking face, but inside I’m sure they’re all churning, as we all were, before the race.”
While the question of whether or not Newgarden will bear the No. 1 on his Penske machine at the 2020 season opener in St. Petersburg, he reflected on why it’s more special of winning the Astor Cup this time around.
“It really hit me. It just really, really hit me on the in-lap. I don’t know why. I was just so emotional,” said Newgarden. “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.”
Newgarden led the series with four wins (St. Petersburg, Belle Isle Race No. 1, Texas and Iowa), along with his two poles and seven podium finishes. He also ends his eighth season with career-highs in average finish of 5.6 and led 490 laps.