Indy 500 champion 'always believed' IndyCar success was possible

Josef Newgarden can't pinpoint one specific moment when he realized he had what it took to become an IndyCar and an Indy 500 legend.
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Indy 500, IndyCar
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Indy 500, IndyCar / James Gilbert/GettyImages

It took Josef Newgarden 12 tries to win his first Indy 500, and it took him just 12 months to win his second, making the driver of Team Penske's No. 2 Chevrolet the first back-to-back winner of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since Helio Castroneves won it in 2001 and 2002.

Before Newgarden's first Indy 500 win, he had won 26 IndyCar races, accounting for nearly half of the entire field's win total, among the drivers who had never won the 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Speedway, Indiana oval. The two-time series champion was always the driver whom everybody asked why he hadn't won it yet.

Now he is an Indy 500 legend, one of just six drivers to win the race in back-to-back years. He has 30 career IndyCar victories to his name, including at least one in each of the last 10 seasons, and owns two series championships and two victories in the biggest race in the world.

Just five drivers in series history have more IndyCar championships and more Indy 500 wins than Newgarden. Their names? A.J. Foyt, Dario Franchitti, Louis Meyer, Rick Mears, and Al Unser. Only three of those five drivers – Foyt, Franchitti, and Unser – have more IndyCar victories than Newgarden.

While Newgarden isn't willing to classify himself as "one of the greats", he always knew in his heart that he had what it took to achieve IndyCar stardom.

In response to a question about his dominant Indy Lights victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2011, his final victory before winning the championship and graduating to IndyCar in 2012, he admitted that he couldn't quite pick a single moment when that reality hit.

"It's a tough question to answer," Newgarden told Beyond the Flag. "I think I always believed that I could work with the team and achieve great results if I had the chance, so I definitely felt that in my heart, but you just never know until you really get the opportunity."

Newgarden got the opportunity to compete in IndyCar in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, and while he did not finish a single race in the top 10 that year, his pace was evident from the start.

A front row start in his third career start at Long Beach unfortunately ended in the wall in turn one due to an overaggressive move by the then-21-year-old Hendersonville, Tennessee native. He was also Honda's only driver to qualify in the top 10 for the Indy 500, and he did it as a rookie.

"I was so excited to start IndyCar racing when I was 21 years old, and oval racing quickly became one of my favorite forms of it," he continued.

Newgarden's oval breakthrough came in 2014 at Iowa Speedway, a track where he is now a six-time winner. A late gamble for new tires during a caution flag period saw the fan-favorite Wichita State car rocket through the field during the closing laps to finish in second place behind that year's Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had gambled on the same strategy.

Newgarden had started the race second-to-last.

Sarah Fisher's team merged with Ed Carpenter's team in 2015 to form CFH Racing, and Newgarden secured his first two victories that year. He remained eligible to win the championship all the way to the season finale. In 2016, after Fisher's team left the sport, Newgarden secured a career-high fourth place finish in the standings with Ed Carpenter Racing, dominating at Iowa along the way.

Then after the season, he signed with Team Penske, where he has had nothing but success. He won the championship in his first year with a four-win 2017 season, and he added a second title in 2019, again with a four-win season.

The only season in which he didn't win at least three races with the team thus far is 2021, when he still finished runner-up in the championship standings. Only twice in seven years has he finished lower than second in points.

"I think you just have to focus on the job in front of you," Newgarden said of his various opportunities in the series over the years. "But I definitely believed it was possible, for sure – I wouldn't say, I'm not saying to become one of the greats, but to achieve success on ovals and just IndyCar racing in general, I believed it was possible, for sure."

Whether he wants to say it or not, it's become pretty clear that Newgarden is indeed one of the greats. At the end of his age 32 season in 2012, Scott Dixon had 28 career wins and two championships, along with his 2008 Indy 500 win. He is now a 57-time race winner and a six-time champion, both good for second behind Foyt.

At the end of his age 32 season in 2013, Will Power had 21 wins and nothing else. He is now a 41-time winner, a two-time series champion, and the 2018 Indy 500 winner.

And the end of his age 32 season last year, Newgarden was already a 29-time winner, a two-time series champion, and an Indy 500 winner. Should he continue on his current trajectory, he has a legitimate chance to be considered a top five driver of all-time. It's hard to argue he's not already in the top 10.

IndyCar driver returning for first appearance in seven years. dark. Next. IndyCar driver returning for first appearance in seven years

And even before a 20-year-old Newgarden waxed the field at Loudon 13 summers ago, he knew it was possible.