INDIANAPOLIS – Josef Newgarden no longer has to be reminded that he was the only Team Penske driver that hadn’t yet won a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The defending NTT IndyCar Series champion started second and led 34 laps to win Friday’s first race of the IndyCar Harvest GP presented by GMR on Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
When SPEED SPORT chided the race winner about that question of never winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Newgarden played along.
“I’m happy you won’t be asking me it anymore,” Newgarden said. “I think you’ve asked at least five times this year. That is a pleasant change now. But you’ll probably be hounding me about the 500 still, so…
“As you know, we’ve not had that yet.”
So, when will Newgarden cross the Indianapolis 500 off his bucket list?
“You never know,” Newgarden said. “I told you that it may never happen, the Indy 500. I’m constantly working at it. I’m putting everything I’ve got into that race. It’s not for lack of effort, I can tell you that.”
First things first, Newgarden finally joined Will Power and Simon Pagenaud as winners on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Power and Pagenaud have scored their victories in the GMR Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
This weekend’s IndyCar Harvest GP is a special addition to the IndyCar schedule to help the series reach 14 races in a COVID-19 plagued season.
To a driver as talented as Newgarden, the doubleheader weekend served as another chance for him to claim his long sought after first NTT IndyCar Series victory at the historic venue.
“It was gratifying to finally put a race together around this place that I think was representative of what we were capable of,” Newgarden said. “It was honestly a little bit emotional getting on the platform that Roger (Penske, team owner and now the owner of IMS and IndyCar) built. It’s just such a cool feeling to be able to sit there, know that you’re getting risen up to finish the race, get on the podium.
“I wish it was last month, I should say, a month and a half ago for the 500. That would have been just amazing to be able to do that. This still felt pretty sweet. It was cool to put a Penske car in Victory Lane especially with everything that Roger has put in this year, how difficult and trying it’s been. Just great to see some fans back socially distanced and enjoying an IndyCar race at beautiful IMS.”
The victory also came at a vital moment for Newgarden, who took a sizable bite out of Scott Dixon’s lead in the NTT IndyCar Series standings. Dixon entered Friday’s race 72 points ahead of Newgarden.
Newgarden’s win, combined with Dixon’s ninth-place finish, puts the Team Penske driver 40 points out of the championship with two races remaining, including Saturday’s second race of the IndyCar Harvest GP and the finale in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“We still have to have perfect days for the next two races,” Newgarden explained. “We have to. We can’t afford to have a bad day tomorrow. We can’t afford to have a bad day in St. Pete.
“I don’t think we’re going for mediocrity. We never do. It’s not like that’s going to be a different approach. We’re always going to maximize our performance. The only difference is that we don’t have any room to be mediocre.
“On days where you have a fourth- or fifth-place car, you still work your butt off to finish with what the car and the team is capable of. The only difference is we have to make sure we’re a winning car every day. We can’t afford to not be a winning car.
“Our approach is no different. We just do not have the room to slip up. If we had any luck for the year, it’s certainly been used up by this point.”
So, if Newgarden runs the table and wins the last three races of the season, does he win the NTT IndyCar Series championship?
“It’s still not in our control,” Newgarden said. “I win both races, maximize points, Scott can still win finishing second both days.
“It’s not even close to within our control at the moment. We’ve gotten a bunch closer today. I think the game is still the same at the moment.”
It’s football season, so the Team Penske driver was able to wrap it up with a gridiron analogy.
“The two-minute warning has pretty much sounded,” Newgarden said. “We’re pretty pressed right now to make it happen. There’s not a lot of time to be methodical or be calculated how we’re going to do this. We’ve just got to be good; we’ve got to get it done.
“We’re trying to be relentless in this pursuit to finish this year off. I think we have everything at our disposal. I know we do. I know we have the car, the team. It’s been the outside factors this year that have really hurt us.
“If we would not have had the outside factors multiples of these races that we went to, I think we’d be in a much different position right now.”