Race Weekend Central

Upon Further Review: Josef Newgarden is Back in his Groove

Over the offseason following the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series campaign, Josef Newgarden decided that a couple of things needed to change ahead of his eighth season driving for Team Penske.

After splitting with brand manager, Brian Simpson, and ceasing his involvement with the popular video series Bus Bros with Scott McLaughlin, Newgarden unfollowed everybody on social media, including his wife.

It was all a way to get refocused on his job, but there have been questions about Newgarden’s ability to seal the deal on road and street courses in IndyCar. Since the start of the 2022 season, Newgarden has won seven of 10 oval races. In that same time period, the Tennessee native’s last road course win was at Road America in June of 2022. His last street course win was Long Beach just two months earlier that same season.

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But the most damning statistic is reserved for this January at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Newgarden was the fourth driver in the No. 7 Porsche Penske entry in the GTP class. According to analytics firm The B Pillar, Newgarden was the third-slowest driver in the entire GTP field.

The only two drivers slower than Newgarden? Romain Dumas who was one month past his 46th birthday and 52-year-old automotive dealer Ben Keating.

What was going on? It might be as simple as Newgarden had fallen out of love with racing and he needed to rediscover his passion.

“It did start becoming a job,” Newgarden said in the post-race press conference. “This is how I make my living, and it’s how I provide for my family, and I’m showing up — it’s not a grueling job. Anyone would be lucky to be in the position that I’m in.

“But if you’re fortunate enough to be here and do this, you should enjoy it. It’s a very difficult job at the end of the day, too, because it’s purely results based. It’s hard to be in this type of job or position and know that you’re either here or not here based on your results. You’re either winning or you don’t have your seat. That’s literally how it works. It’s kind of hard to find that enjoyment factor.

“I’d always had it. I’d learned how to thrive in the pressure and still enjoy the job, and I think it just slipped away at one point. I was buried with a lot of other things, and I just tried to simplify my life and get back to happiness, and I think I’ve done that in a lot of ways. I feel really happy. I feel motivated.”

The defending Indianapolis 500 winner showed his motivation on Saturday by claiming pole position for Sunday’s race. Leading 92 of the race’s 100 laps put the rest of the field on notice that the old version of Newgarden is coming back.

He Did What?!

While watching Sunday’s race, Alex Palou spent most of the race hovering just outside the top 10. This was a good omen for the rest of the field. In 2023, Palou finished no lower than eighth en route to winning his second IndyCar championship, with St. Petersburg being one of his two eighth place finishes.

Before the final sequence of pit stops, Palou was 11th. After everyone cycled through, the Spaniard was seventh. On Lap 76, Palou went by Felix Rosenqvist and moved up to sixth place, where he finished.

That’s not good news for the rest of the field. A driver becomes a champion by limiting their bad days, and Palou hasn’t had a truly bad day since contact at Road America in 2022 eliminated him from the race.

Though Newgarden’s performance was impressive, Palou’s ability for damage mitigation is just as impressive.

Through the Field

A lot of drivers picked a good day to have a good day at St. Petersburg. McLaughlin finished third (started ninth), Palou in sixth (13th), Alexander Rossi in eighth (15th), Kyle Kirkwood in 12th (18th), Kyffin Simpson in 14th (23rd), Pietro Fittipaldi in 15th (26th), Graham Rahal in 16th (22nd) and Jack Harvey in 19th (27th) all finished at least six spots ahead of where they started.

For Simpson and Fittipaldi, the results were massively impressive given that this was Simpson’s first IndyCar race and Fittipaldi’s first full-time season in IndyCar competition after several starts across various took away the Miami native’s rookie status.

Fittipaldi went home wit the Jostens Biggest Mover honors for his effort.

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The Junior Formulae Stars Shine

Indy NXT, USF Pro 2000 and USF2000 all had their season openers at St. Petersburg and they did not disappoint.

While Nolan Siegel dominated Indy NXT, Lochie Hughes and Nikita Johnson split the USF Pro 2000 Championship victories at St. Petersburg with Hughes picking up the championship lead thanks to him finishing second in Sunday morning’s race. Max Garcia picked up both victories in USF2000, but his Friday triumph was perhaps the best race of the weekend.

Garcia was chasing Evagoras Papasavvas all through the race before the Miami native made his move. Garcia went on Papasavvas’s outside heading to Turn 4 to have the inside line on the next corner. In an effort to keep his speed up, Papasavvas kept his foot in the throttle despite his car being on the dirty outside groove of the corner.

The Kirkland, Washington, native slid through the corner while Garcia remained on the racing line and pulled away to win by just over six-tenths of a second. Garcia cried on the podium. This was 14-year-old Garcia’s first win on the IndyCar ladder system a year after sitting out the season opener because he was too young to race.

Now, Garcia’s got the points lead as USF2000 heads to NOLA Motorsports Park in April.

IndyCar will take a weekend off from March 15-17 before heading to Thermal Club the next week for the first running of the series’ $1 Million Challange on March 24.

About the author

Christopher DeHarde has covered IndyCar racing and the Road to Indy for various outlets since 2014. In addition to open wheel racing, DeHarde has also covered IMSA and various short track racing events around Indiana. Originally from New Orleans, DeHarde moved to the Indianapolis area in 2017 to further pursue a career as a motorsports writer.

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