It’s been a quiet month for of May for Josef Newgarden compared to the start of 2022 when he opened the year in the hottest fashion possible.
The 31-year-old Tennessee native currently stands 30 points out of the championship lead when it was his just two races ago. Over the first five events of the year, the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet’s pair of victories are their only posted top 10 finishes.
A first win on the season at Texas Motor Speedway was a rewrite from the troubling start at St. Petersburg, but in the last two races Newgarden has finished 14th and 25th. Needing to get back on track from a hot and cold start, Indianapolis is a fitting place to do that.
Since joining Penske, the two-time series champion has three top 10s in five Indy 500s with a best finish of fourth in 2019. Newgarden scored a 12th place finish last year overcoming a 21st starting spot.
“I think we made a really good step,” Newgarden said. “When I look at the speed charts it’s easier for us to be towards the top in practice. That wasn’t so much the case last year. I think in qualifying we didn’t show all of our promise. We got dealt a bad hand. We probably should have done a better job on our side on the way we managed that hand we were dealt.
“But there’s not doubt that the timing was not perfect for us. I think we fell a little bit victim to that and we didn’t show the entire performance of the car speed wise. But I think there’s a good step from last year, a marked improvement. My senses were still a little shy from out right speed and pace we’re probably off. It’s just a matter how off are we, I don’t think it’s much.
Wish we could have proved that out a little bit more last weekend and we didn’t. But when it comes to the race, I think our cars a step forward. I think if you look at someone like (Simon) Pagenaud last year, he had a really good race, he was the best of all of us (Team Penske) really. I think we can repeat what he did if not, do better than that. I feel very content in our racing potential, but yeah the qualifying potential wasn’t fully shown this year probably.”
There has not been much to talk about from Newgarden’s camp and really Penske’s three cars as Chip Ganassi Racing has been the class of the field to this point. Another factor that doesn’t work in their favor is that their trio of teams have not all started in the top 10 in the last two 500s.
That streak continues as Will Power rolls off highest on the grid in 11th with Newgarden placed right behind in 14th. Scott McLaughlin went out for a second four-lap attempt, moving down from 15th to 26th, in last Saturday’s qualifying session to set positions 13th to 33rd.
Despite their grid positions not being up towards the front and Ganassi’s Hondas fill the top five of six spots, Newgarden has definite faith in Penske.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I mean I believe any of us can, I look at Scott a lot too and I think he can win this race. I’ve seen him in traffic, I think he is very good. He can win the race, I can win the race and Will can win the race. It’s just a matter of putting the right race together, that’s what we have to do. We’ve got to make the right decisions, we got to be on it on strategy.
We can’t have any missteps, we got to be there at the end, put ourselves in position and execute. I’ve been there a couple times at the end and the execution part and capitalizing on positioning, that’s been the missing piece. There’s been like two times I’ve been in position I just couldn’t capitalize on it. So I’m really focused on, A – getting in position and then B – capitalizing. Those are the two things.”
Along with some speed found at the Brickyard, there is another aspect in Newgarden’s season that is new. Gelling with his race engineer in their first campaign working together.
Eric Leichtle replaced Gavin Ward, longtime Penske race engineer and won with Newgarden for his two titles. Earning two checkered flags in their first three races is a more than an ideal way to start.
“I think we are probably still a work in progress overall,” said Newgarden. “I think we are probably still a work in progress overall, but I think we’ve made a good step. For sure going from four to three cars, it’s refocused our efforts and we understand where every one is at and what we’re really working on.
“But we can still improve, I think this year we are going to continue to try and optimize how can we be better, we are always doing that. We looked at last year and said ‘where do we fall short’, we tried to improve in every area.
“I think we are going to leave this year and say the same thing. We made a step forward, I think we can quantify what it was at some point. And we’ll just have to go again and keep getting better. We’re never satisfied.”