IndyCar’s oval ace is still missing one important thing

Josef Newgarden, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Josef Newgarden, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Nearly half of Josef Newgarden’s career IndyCar wins are oval wins, which is impressive given how few there are on the calendar. But he is still missing that elusive Indy 500.

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden enters this year’s Indy 500 on somewhat of an under-the-radar streak that resembles something more along the lines of what you see in Formula 1 than what you see in the ultra-competitive “anyone can win” series that is IndyCar.

The driver of the No. 2 Chevrolet heads into the second oval race — and by far the most significant — on the 2023 schedule having won five of the last seven oval races, dating back to the race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in August 2021.

He won the oval opener at Texas Motor Speedway last year before winning one of the two races of the Iowa Speedway doubleheader and then winning again at Gateway, where he is a four-time winner in seven starts — and now the three-time reigning winner.

He then won this year’s oval opener at Texas, a race that was described by pundits as IndyCar’s most exciting since Fontana in 2015 because of the two and three-wide pack-style racing throughout.

And if not for a fluke shock failure on lap 236 of 300 (after leading 148 laps) of last year’s second Iowa race, sending him backwards into the turn four retaining wall, he would be entering this year’s Indy 500 with six wins in the last seven oval races.

The loss before right before that streak began? The 2021 Indy 500. The only other loss during that streak? The 2022 Indy 500.

The fact that the Indy 500 was a double points race has certainly played a part in him losing each of the last two oval championships to Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward, who is also still seeking his first Indy 500 win himself after a runner-up finish a year ago.

But with more oval wins since August 2021 than O’Ward has career victories, there is little doubt that Newgarden is the man to beat on circuits with strictly left turns.

The problem is, he hasn’t yet done it at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“You know, it’s just such a complex race,” Newgarden told Beyond the Flag. “It’s not as simple as everywhere else we go. There’s obviously a lot more pressure, but I think it’s more than that. It just puts more emphasis on getting the details right, more than anywhere else.

“The field is so close here that pit stops are really critical, your strategy is really critical, and your car, its consistency, the way that it drives in traffic; [the track is] kind of a one-lane race track in most ways, when we’re outside of the restarts, that the car’s consistency is really important here, more so than other tracks.”

Newgarden, like any other driver, knows that without an Indy 500 win, a successful IndyCar career simply is not complete, no matter how you look at it. The 26 wins are nice. The two championships are even nicer. But without any Indy 500 wins, can comparisons to some of the legends of the sport truly be made?

It’s not like he has missed out in late-race situations at Indy, either. He simply hasn’t been all that strong there. About the best thing relating to his Indy 500 record is the fact that he has run every lap since 2018. He has only led 24 of those 1,000 laps and has finished no higher than fourth place during that span.

His best finish, a third place effort in 2016, didn’t even come with the 18-time Indy 500-winning Team Penske organization, where he has competed since 2017. He led 14 laps that afternoon with Ed Carpenter Racing. Even if not for Alexander Rossi saving a ton of fuel before crawling across the finish line in P1, he would have placed second behind Carlos Munoz.

Compare that to Gateway, where he has led 452 of 1,664 laps contested since 2017. Compare it to Iowa, where he has led 1,506 of the last 2,500 laps, including at least 100 in his last five and seven of his last nine starts. And of course, since 2018, he has led more laps at Texas in five individual races that he has led at Indianapolis in total.

Since 2019 alone, Newgarden has won exactly three races at every oval currently on the schedule, except for Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s just a tough race to win; there’s a lot that can go wrong,” Newgarden stated. “Everybody feels the pressure on race day here, and you have to have everything go perfectly. There’s just no way around that, like really just have to have a perfect day, and there’s only one team, one driver, who’s going to be able to do that. And I think that’s what makes it so special if you’re able to finally achieve it.”

Every year that Newgarden doesn’t find himself with a bottle of milk in hand on Memorial Day Sunday, the question is asked. And if, in career start number 12, he once again can’t cross the yard of bricks to take the checkered flag first, it is going to continue to be asked.

Is this finally Newgarden’s year?

Next. All-time IndyCar wins list. dark

The 107th running of the Indy 500 is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 28, and it is set to be broadcast live from Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET. Newgarden is set to start the race in 17th place behind the wheel of the No. 2 Chevrolet (full starting lineup here). Begin a free trial of FuboTV and don’t miss it!