Indy 500: Josef Newgarden's next step in IndyCar is clear

Now an Indy 500 winner, Josef Newgarden's next step in IndyCar has become clear. He has what it takes to become one of the sport's greatest drivers of all-time.
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Indy 500, IndyCar
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Indy 500, IndyCar / James Gilbert/GettyImages

Entering the 107th running of the Indy 500, 24 of the 33 drivers in the field had never won the race. Those 24 drivers had racked up a total of 61 combined victories in IndyCar. And 26 of those victories were earned by a single driver: Team Penske's Josef Newgarden.

Aside from Newgarden, no other non-Indy 500 winner in the field had secured more than seven career IndyCar victories. The driver second on that list, Colton Herta, hasn't even won an oval race.

But one year ago this coming weekend, the monkey officially dropped off the back of the 33-year-old from Hendersonville, Tennessee, who is already a two-time IndyCar champion.

Josef Newgarden's next step is to see how high he can climb among all-time IndyCar greats.

The Indy 500 was the final box he needed to check off. While not actually true, he felt that he was looked upon as a "failure" without an Indy 500 win to his name.

Now it's just a matter of seeing how much more he can add to his resume before he retires, which probably isn't happening anytime soon.

It took until Newgarden's fourth season in IndyCar before he finally found victory lane. When he joined Team Penske in 2017, he had three wins to his name in five seasons, all with CFH (Carpenter Fisher Hartman) Racing or Ed Carpenter Racing.

Skip ahead to 2024, and he is already in a 13th place tie on the all-time IndyCar wins list. Excluding drivers who never won the Indy 500, he is tied for 10th on that list. Excluding drivers without multiple championships, he is also tied for 10th. A third championship would make him the 13th driver to win at least three titles.

Newgarden won multiple races in each of his first seven seasons with Team Penske, and as long as he is driving from Roger Penske's team, he is poised to maximize his potential and climb up the all-time wins list at a rapid pace. A jump into the top 10 by the end of the season is entirely possible.

We're talking about a driver who won five races in 2022, a mark no driver had achieved in a single season since 2016, against arguably the most competitive field the sport has seen, one stacked with drivers -- Alex Palou, Scott Dixon, Will Power, and Scott McLaughlin, to name a few -- capable of winning on any weekend.

In seven seasons with Team Penske, he has just two finishes outside of the top two in the championship standings (2018 and 2023). He still managed to win three races in 2018, and he won four races in 2023, including the Indy 500.

Prior to his fifth place finish in last year's standings, even after he became the first driver in 13 years to win multiple races after an Indy 500 victory later in the season, Newgarden was riding a streak of three straight runner-up finishes in the standings after winning his second title in 2019, and he finished behind a different driver every year. But that could very well have been a different story.

In 2020, he trimmed a 117-point deficit to Scott Dixon down to 16 points, beating the six-time champion in each of the season's final six races. But the schedule was shortened to 14 races as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How would things have turned out in a regular 16 or 17-race season?

Take away the transmission failure on the late Road America restart in 2021, and Newgarden is a three-time champion. Take away the late shock failure at Iowa Speedway in 2022, and he is a four-time champion.

Hindsight is, of course, nothing more than "if, if, if". But there is no reason why Newgarden can't win three, four, five, or even more championships, which would presumably bring him to at least 40 or 50 wins.

There's no reason he can't go down as the sport's best driver ever.

Is it premature? Sure. A.J. Foyt's record of 67 wins will be hard to catch. His record of seven championships may be even harder. Four Indy 500 wins is a mark that only three others have managed to match.

But nobody -- not Scott Dixon, Will Power, or anybody else -- has a better chance than Newgarden to take over at the top. Records are, after all, meant to be broken.

At the end of his age 32 season in 2012, Dixon had 28 career wins and two championships, along with his 2008 Indy 500 win. At the end of his age 32 season in 2013, Power had 21 wins and nothing else.

Newgarden ended last year with 29 and two championships, fresh off his first Indy 500 win. Given the fact that he has emerged as IndyCar's top oval driver, winning five of the last six races at tracks with exclusively left turns, more Indy 500 wins may very well be in his future, even though it took him 12 tries to win it for the first time.

Are there other great young drivers who could vault themselves into this discussion? Always. After all, Newgarden scored zero top 10 finishes in his rookie season, and yet here we are.

But we are well past the point of Newgarden showing flashes of potential. He has already done far more that that.

With his Indy 500 win last year, he has officially gone from "next" to "now" -- even though he had already done that in everyone else's eyes several years ago. The only question left is how high he can climb up the list of all-time greats.

Indy 500 honorary Pace Car driver confirmed, and it's not Caitlin Clark. Indy 500 honorary Pace Car driver confirmed, and it's not Caitlin Clark. dark. Next

Newgarden qualified third on the grid for this year's Indy 500, giving him just his second ever front row start -- and first with Team Penske. NBC is set to provide live coverage of the race from Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET this Sunday, May 26. Begin a free trial of FuboTV now and don't miss it!