Race Weekend Central

This Wasn’t Just Another Win for Josef Newgarden

Over the course of its long and storied history, the Indianapolis 500 has been all about tradition, one of which is that the race is 500 miles. No exceptions.

That has led to some decisions that might have straddled the line between what’s tradition and what the fans want, especially in recent years when the red flag has flown to stop the race in the late stages in an attempt to give the fans a green finish.

That happened again on Sunday (May 28) during the 107th edition of the Memorial Day classic, as the red stopped the race three times in the event’s final 40 miles. The last of those stoppages led to a one-lap dash for one of the greatest titles in all of sports.

While the decision to end the race in such a fashion may be debated, the end result won’t, as Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden passed reigning Indy 500 champion Marcus Ericsson on the backstretch and held the Swede off to the checkered flag to win his first Indy 500 in the fourth-closest finish in the race’s history. The 32-year-old from Nashville finally tasted the milk for the first time in his 12th 500 start.

That tied Sam Hanks and Tony Kanaan for the longest start to a career before winning the 500. Like Newgarden, both drivers knocked on the door and had a couple of chances before finally breaking through.

For Hanks, winning the 500 in 1957 was the perfect cap to his career, and the 42-year-old promptly retired in Victory Lane. Kanaan’s win in 2013 was one of the most popular in the history of The Brickyard, and the Brazilian closed out a brilliant career Sunday with a 16th-place finish.

Judging by his reaction to winning – which involved crawling through a hole in the fence at the start/finish line and celebrating with the fans, Newgarden is more likely to follow Kanaan’s lead and continue looking for more.

It also put him on the road to greatness.

Wait a minute… a guy with two NTT IndyCar Series championships and 27 wins is getting started? Yep, because everyone knew that Newgarden was good, but winning the Indy 500 changes everything.

How “greatness” is defined in IndyCar is a fluid type of thing. Mario Andretti and Scott Dixon each only have one Indy 500 win, but possess a body of work that is among the most impressive in motorsports history. Helio Castroneves has never won an IndyCar championship, but his 31 wins and putting his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy four times more than makes up for that.

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Since moving to Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden has racked up 24 wins, two titles, and three runner-up finishes in the points. All he needed was an Indy 500 win to boost his resume.

He got that on Sunday. Newgarden, whose previous best 500 finish was third when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing in 2016, steadily moved from his 17th-place starting position into the top five. He only led five laps on the day, the third fewest all-time behind Joe Dawson in 1912 and Dan Wheldon in 2011, but was where he needed to be when it counted.

With Ericsson taking the field back to the white flag, Newgarden stalked him through the first two turns before going around on the outside heading down the backstretch and into immortality. The win ties him with Johnny Rutherford for 15th all-time, with Rick Mears just two wins in front of him, and Castoneves, Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy four wins away.

Given Newgarden has averaged around four wins a season since joining Team Penske, if he keeps up that pace he will be in rarefied air as he hits his mid-30s. And now that he’s won the 500, are more on the way?

Of course, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is fickle. Andretti was just 29 when he won his first 500, and he thought there were more to come. They never did. Meanwhile, Franchitti won his first at 34, and knocked off two more in the next five years to put himself in the history books.

Sunday was a good opportunity to reflect on Newgarden’s career, and the final verdict?

He’s an all-time great.

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