SONOMA, Calif. — In his first season driving for legendary team owner Roger Penske, Josef Newgarden delivered on his long-heralded potential, wrapping up a spectacular year with his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
Newgarden finished second to teammate Simon Pagenaud in the 85-lap GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, but a season record of four wins and nine podiums in 17 races — along with an average finish of 6.1 — allowed him to clinch the Astor Cup by 13 points over Pagenaud when the twin checkers waved.
The title is the first for an American driver since 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay won the season championship for Andretti Autosport, and Newgarden joins Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, ’02, ’06) and Hunter-Reay as American titlists since the turn of the millenium.
He is also the youngest champion in a unified American open wheel championship since Jacques Villeneuve claimed the CART title in 1995 at the age of 24.
An emotional Newgarden was nearly in tears as he climbed from his No. 2 Hum by Verizon Chevrolet, getting hugs from Penske and race strategist Tim Cindric before taking in the magnitude of what he had accomplished.
“This is awesome. It’s so cool. I don’t even know what to say, really,” said the 26-year-old native of Hendersonville, Tenn. “It took a lot to make this happen. Everybody gave me a lot of help today to make sure we got this done and it’s a huge team effort here at (Team) Penske. It’s cool to do this. To finally get this done, it’s a dream come true.”
Newgarden wanted to take the fight to Pagenaud in the final laps and fight for the race win, but had Cindric in his ear over the closing laps continually reminding him, “Don’t worry about Simon.”
“It was hard … I was going against my natural instincts,” Newgarden admitted. “I was trying to get Pagenaud there because that’s what I normally do. I try to win the race whenever is possible. Tim was telling me to be patient and not to do something stupid. I tried to get him but I also tried to not doing anything dumb for the team.”
“Like I said, this has been a team effort. I am happy for Pagenaud; he had the pace to win today for sure and he’s very deserving of that. This entire group makes this happen. I’m so thankful and happy with everything at Team Penske. Congrats to everyone back home at the factory … because this is an amazing amount of work that goes into this.”
Newgarden admitted that while his drive on Sunday looked effortless, the days leading up to the finale were anything but easy.
“I barely got any sleep for two weeks,” he laughed. “I may have said (to the media) that I was fine, and that I was sleeping well, but I wasn’t at all. My girlfriend will be glad that we can finally get a good night’s sleep again!”
“I just had to say to myself, ‘I’m not nervous; it’s just another race,’ but I was nervous the entire week leading up to today. I had dreams every night of a different person that I was racing and they just weren’t going away. … I was tossing and turning, but now that this thing’s finally over, I’m going to sleep well this winter.”
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