MONTEREY, Calif. – Instead of racing for a win in Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Josef Newgarden had to race for a championship.
That meant drive with the utmost conservativeness and stay within sight of his closest rival entering the finale, Alexander Rossi.
Instead of running up front for the win, Newgarden ran most of the race in sixth, seventh and eighth. Rossi’s Honda didn’t fare much better as he was outside of the top five.
“The most important thing was for a Team Penske car to win the championship, and that’s the way we devised our strategy, and you hope it works out in your favor,” Newgarden explained. “Ultimately what’s important is the team winning the championship, and that was our plan.
“I’m just really proud of everybody. I’m just so thankful to have the opportunity, and I’m just happy it’s over with, to be honest with you. I can’t wait to go into this off-season. I think it’s going to be a nice little rest before next year.”
The only championship contenders that were better were Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, but without either driver winning the race, Newgarden was in the catbirds seat to clinch his first IndyCar Series championship since 2017.
“I’m just happy it’s done with, to be honest with you,” Newgarden said after all of the celebrations were concluded. “I’ve been dreading the last couple weeks because I don’t think it really hits you until you get finally to Laguna or after Portland I should say, two weeks to go, because then you really realize the points situation.
“It’s just such a stressful deal with double points. I hated it. I hated thinking about it, and I know we didn’t build up enough of a gap to make it super easy on ourselves, and I was just kind of dreading it, to be honest with you.
“We kind of set a strategy and stuck to it, and I don’t know that it was working out part way through, but then you saw towards the end, the way things were positioned, it ended up being okay, which made me really pleased. But I think we were trying to cover our bases as a team.”
When Newgarden won his first championship in 2017, he let loose with a celebration of enthusiasm and joy. On Sunday, he was far more emotional and actually let the tears flow.
“I don’t know why, but it feels more special,” Newgarden said. “It really hit me. It just really, really hit me on the in-lap. I don’t know why. I was just so emotional. I didn’t quite get that way in the first one. I don’t know if you don’t have quite the respect for it or what it is. Maybe the way you said it is more appropriate. You just have more perspective on how difficult it is to be — you can win a race every week.
“When you’re in a season, those opportunities come every single week, but to win a championship, it doesn’t come every week. That opportunity seldom is there, and if it is there, you really want to capitalize on it because you never know if you’re going to get that again, and I think you really realize that the more years you do this.
“I think this one just felt like it was more ours to lose. It was more ours to give away. I thought it was our year to win, and if we didn’t, it was just going to hurt a lot. Just the effort would have been — not for nothing, but it just would have felt pretty bad to throw away what we had put together all season.”
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