Josef Newgarden: Penske's choice not to swap drivers at Portland shows 'ethics of the team'
SALINAS, Calif. – Josef Newgarden's not afraid to speak his mind, and he's certainly not one to ignore anyone taking shots at Team Penske, his home for the last six years. After Scott Dixon called the team out for opting not to order a swap of Will Power and Scott McLaughlin for the lead at Portland -- a move that would've given Power a 30-point championship cushion instead of 20 but eliminated McLaughlin and dug Newgarden in a deeper hole -- Newgarden credited Penske's ethics.
But it wasn't hard to see he was volleying his own veiled shots back at the six-time champ in comments to the IndyStar during an exclusive interview Friday morning before teams hit the track at Laguna Seca for the season-finale weekend.
On the line this weekend for Newgarden is the opportunity to move from a group of 26 drivers with multiple IndyCar titles to just 12 with three or more -- or risk mirroring what Power did from 2010-12, in finishing the runner-up in the title race three times running. Below is that conversation, edited and condensed with added clarity when it's necessary.
Nathan Brown: Like this year, you've come into the last two season finales working from behind (32 points behind Scott Dixon in 2020, 35 behind Alex Palou in 2021). Is there any sort of added sense of urgency to not end up with a third consecutive runner-up finish?
Josef Newgarden: I don’t feel any urgency, necessarily. If anything’s built, it’s been frustration that we haven’t been able to put ourselves in a better position. That, I think, has been disappointing that we can’t find ourselves in a better position going into this final event. Where we’re at coming into this weekend, it is what it is. Instilling urgency in myself isn’t going to change anything at this point. There’s no pressure from my side. I don’t feel we have anything to prove to anybody. That part of it never bugs me.
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NB: With a tighter gap to the front, do you arrive at Laguna Seca feeling like you've got a better shot than the last two years?
JN: I wish we were closer. Portland was not ideal for us. I think the engine penalty probably hurt us more than I forecasted it would, and certainly the final stint was the real nail in the coffin on that for pushing us back. It was disappointing, because I think we could’ve come in with a lot tighter gap, but we are where we are. We are closer than the last two years, and it does open up more opportunities. It’s just not the preferred spot.
NB: You've gone into this finale both from behind and ahead, needing to protect your lead. Where does the pressure lie in these?
JN: In a lot of ways, it's a fun position to be in. We're in a great position to go for broke, but someone like Will has to be careful on the weekend. He has to carefully construct how he wants to run the weekend. When you look at this year and how the championship can flip in one race, to me, it's still wide-open for everybody. It's not a bad thing. I'd prefer to be leading if I was to choose, but things are the way they are.
NB: There's been a lot of talk in recent days about how Portland transpired, about the fact Team Penske opted not to switch Will and McLaughlin to pad Will's lead -- which, of course would've hurt you and taken McLaughlin out completely. What do you make of the dialogue around that?
JN: I think you’re just seeing the ethics of the team. There’s other teams that handle that differently and have different ethics but I’m really proud to be part of this group. I think they’re absolutely the best of the best for a reason, and I see that in a lot of ways. Portland was by no means the right time to do anything of what people were discussing. They were very interesting comments and illuminating to hear some of the comments actually.
NB: Tim Cindric mentioned he thought Scott Dixon was trying to engage in some 'mental games' when it came to bringing up the Portland decision. Clearly, you've heard what's been said. Are you able to both acknowledge it, and then block it out at the same time?
JN: I think everybody’s affected differently, but that hasn’t really even been in my … I read the comments, but it doesn’t really affect me. If anything, I think it reflected more negatively on others. I think they’ve maybe psyched themselves out more than anything.
NB: Do you see it almost like they're trying to pull out all the stops to get an edge for this weekend?
JN: Maybe so, but if that’s the tactic they wanted to take, I don’t envy their approach. I can only speak for myself, but it hasn’t affected me.
NB: When you and Will have to worry about battling each other while making certain Dixon doesn't benefit in the process, does that give them any sort of added advantage?
JN: I think we’re going to try to work together as best as possible, and I’m sure Ganassi will do the same. I see us in a position of advantage much more than them. We have better cars in my opinion and can make better use of that this weekend, and I think we’re in a better position points-wise. It’s definitely a bigger task for them, but I think the ethics of this team is second to none. I really just take my hat off to Roger and Tim. I think they really do an incredible job of giving everyone a fair opportunity.
Everyone here knows they want to do their part for the team to win. We’re all going to be selfless when it comes down to the final moment when we have to do something for the team, but they understand and recognize we all have an opportunity – including Scott (McLaughlin). I think that plays a lot into the Portland discussion. You can’t look at Scott as someone who’s totally out of this. It wouldn’t be fair to him.
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NB: Is it weird that there's a chance you could have five -- or even six -- wins this year and not come away with the championship to a driver with maybe just one victory?
JN: It is wild, but it’s understandable when you look at our year. Everyone has their own story, and you can go back and recount the events that went sideways for us – a lot. I’m not just talking about Iowa Race No. 2. There were race after race, and it really built a lot this year as far as the frustration. I could see it happening so often, and it was such a dichotomy. We’d be winning a race, and the next weekend, things would just go sideways, and it just kept flip-flopping so aggressively.
It was so disappointing because you could see how much better it could be going from a championship standpoint. In some ways, that’s also encouraging – regardless of how this weekend works out – I’m going to be ready to attack this offseason and do something even better next year, so that gives me a lot of strength and hope and kinda makes things better when I think of it that way. But we’re not done yet, and I hope this one turns out a little bit different than the last two years.
If these guys start hitting back at us a little bit more, I’m just going to hit harder. We’ll find a way to win a lot more races. I have no doubt about that.