Josef Newgarden validated his case as the future of American open wheel racing after winning his first IndyCar Series championship at Sonoma Raceway Sunday.
Open wheel racing has had its share of American heroes ruling the sport. From the likes of Ted Horn and Wilbur Shaw to Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt whom flourished the sport, American drivers has always been part of the motorsports forte.
Today, American drivers dominating open wheel racing has been bleak as a slew of international drivers have taken the throne of open wheel kings. However, that’s not saying there aren’t great drivers from the United States anymore. The problem has been long-term performances and other sanctioning bodies luring them away from the revolutionary and treacherous sport.
Despite this issue, there’s one driver who may break the mold and put American open wheel racing back on the map long-term and that’s Hendersonville, Tennessee native and new Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden.
Known for the birthplace of country greats like Johnny Cash and home of the Jarrett wrestling family, Newgarden had a tremendous debut season with IndyCar’s mecca, Team Penske. Scoring four wins and nine podiums in 17 starts in the No. 2 Chevrolet, dethroning former championship teammates Simon Pagenaud (France) and Will Power (Australia) as Roger Penske’s top guy.
Before joining Penske, the 2011 Indy Lights champion already had solid performances at CFH and Ed Carpenter Racing including a convincing victory at Iowa July 10, 2016, leading 282 of 300 laps. He did this while racing with a broken hand and shoulder sustained from a violent shunt with Conor Daly at Texas Motor Speedway June 12, 2016.
If Newgarden leads, the battles shift to who will finish second because he tends to be difficult to overtake and his championship season is just the beginning of a dangerous pair between the young American and the 15-time championship winning owner.
He has the equipment, the right personnel and of course his undeniable grit of putting his foot on the floor to produce classic runs on both oval and road courses. Plus, he knows how to carry himself as a winning driver which will help the sport once elite drivers Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan end their IndyCar careers.
Time will tell how many more wins and championships Newgarden will have with Penske, but he can carry the American banner for open wheel racing that’s been missing for years.
In an era where NASCAR has been the preferred career choice for aspiring American drivers, IndyCar has struggled to have its true leader as several guys and gal have come and go with little fanfare.
Sure, you have guys like Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal carrying family legacies and ex-F1 driver Alexander Rossi showcasing his potential, but neither of the three have yet to have superb performances on a year-by-year basis in a short amount of time than Newgarden.
It’s taken Rahal years to hit his peak and Rossi has begun adapting to the style of racing where it’s driver centric rather than technology. Marco—on the other hand—has failed to live up to the name with only two wins (2006 and 2011) in 190 starts.
Newgarden’s name value was built on performance like Sam Hornish, Jr. except IndyCar has gained credibility compared to the days Hornish, Jr. ran when it was oval dominant and inferior to the Champ Car World Series.
The quality of racing has gotten better with top notch drivers and fans who are frustrated with the direction of NASCAR and Formula One, are noticing a mainstream alternative where gimmicks doesn’t define the sport.
Will it be back to the glory days when open wheel racing was the top racing series in America? I still believe it can happen, but the rebuilding process has been difficult and it’s slowly regaining lost momentum.
If I were IndyCar, I try to build the sport on Newgarden because he’s a gifted driver that has delivered in a top-tier ride the hard way. When Newgarden debuted in 2012, he had decent runs for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, but nothing stellar. His former owners saw his potential, it was just a matter of who will give him his big break to prove himself as IndyCar’s future star.
Once he had better equipment, his potential blossomed and look where it got him? A top ride and a championship.
These days, sponsorships get you rides, but what makes Newgarden unique is how hard he had to work to get where he is today. That’s one trait I admire Newgarden as a driver and if IndyCar loses him, it’ll be a huge blow.
To me, IndyCar needs a humble and fierce competitor like Newgarden to help the sport grow and American fans can support for the long haul. There’s just something about the 26-year-old that screams the future of American open wheel racing that hasn’t been seen since the infamous split in 1996.
The last thing I want to see Newgarden is him running NASCAR.
I don’t mind him giving it a go part-time like competing in the Daytona 500 or doing “The Double” (Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend). I love versatile drivers, but full-time stock car racing? No.
Look at the bad history of drivers who tried the sport in the late 2000s? Successful transitions are almost non-existent and if your name isn’t Dario Franchitti, a driver’s image were damaged.
Hornish, Jr. struggled in his two stints in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and was only good in the Xfinity Series. It took Champ Car standout A.J. Almendinger years to finally adapt into stock cars and the only guy from the failed invasion (2007-08) with a secured ride next season. And then there’s Danica Patrick who came after the invasion.
Danica is one of the biggest busts in NASCAR history and with her exit at Stewart-Haas Racing after 2017, the hype train she’s always had is dead. To me, Danica’s confrontation with the fans booing her at Pocono this year marked the beginning of the end. The video exposed her and later her comments about not willing to run in the Xfinity Series showcased her primadonna personality.
Newgarden remained humbled when he spoke to the press after winning the championship at Sonoma Raceway Sunday. He’s also adapted to every challenge and succeeded which is hard for drivers who enter a major auto racing division at a young age. In other words, Newgarden knows how to handle the pressure. That’s a plus he has going and hope it doesn’t fade away when he does become one of IndyCar’s elite drivers by decade’s end.
My message to Newgarden is don’t leave when the pot is hot. Continue to showcase what you’ve worked your whole life to achieve and that’s become a iconic American IndyCar driver, where your competitors say, “that’s the guy to beat.” Be an example for the sport and hope that 30 years from now when you won multiple championships and earned victories at Indianapolis, you’ll be considered as the an all-time great. More importantly, America’s savior of open wheel racing.