It’s just two races into the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, but things appear to be falling into place nicely for Josef Newgarden.
The No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet driver looks to be back in the championship form that delivered the 2017 crown after capitalizing on opportunities to maximize the points he took away from both race weekends thus far this year.
Newgarden's combination of driving skill and clever strategy, with a bit of luck thrown in for good measure, has delivered his best career start with a win and a second-place finish, despite coming in two races where he probably should have finished lower in the results.
It's a start worthy of five-time champion Scott Dixon, who always seems to be in the mix no matter what happens or how bad things look.
A win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg came at the expense of teammate Will Power, who started on pole in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet and looked in control before he pitted early in anticipation of a caution that wasn't thrown and ruined his chances of a victory.
Newgarden was there to seize the day and snatch the win away from his unlucky teammate, who ended the race in third.
“I knew we had the car to win and so I was just waiting for our opportunities,” Newgarden said of the St. Pete win.
“I knew within cycles and tires, we were going to have an opportunity present itself. Once it was there, we pounced.”
In last weekend’s inaugural INDYCAR Classic at the Circuit of The Americas, Newgarden struggled to keep pace with the leaders in a car his team thought wasn't good enough to get him onto the podium.
The race played out pretty much as the team predicted, with the Penske driver moving up three spots from seventh on the starting grid using a strategy of pitting earlier than the rest to try and jump his rivals ahead by taking advantage of additional speed in new tires.
That strategy turned out to be a stroke of genius at COTA when a full-course caution came out one lap after his final pit stop, catching out race leader Power, second-place Alexander Rossi and third-place Dixon. Newgarden suddenly found himself in contention for a win when the race went green again with 10 laps to go, but he could not catch winner Colton Herta (No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda) and took home a valued runner-up finish.
“We got a little bit of a break. If we didn't get that yellow, we most likely would have finished fourth,” Newgarden admitted. “A second place is big for us. We talked about the fact that you need to have podium finishes if you aren’t winning races, and this goes a long way to our championship run.”
Although it didn't deliver a victory, the INDYCAR Classic was reminiscent of the 2017 Honda Indy Toronto, where Newgarden pitted just as a yellow waved and went on to win. After that race, he posted four top-two finishes in the final five races, including two wins, to seal his first NTT IndyCar Series title.
With the series heading to the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (4 p.m. ET Sunday, April 7 on NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network), where he's won three of the past four races, it’s a good bet to think Newgarden can continue his success at Barber Motorsport Park.
After an up-and-down 2018 – when he had three wins but no other podium results to finish fifth in points – Newgarden is certainly not going to complain about the change in fortune, or the results so far this year.
“We got the opposite end of the deal last year — never got the yellows to fall our way — unlucky,” he said.
“We were either feast or famine last year. It was win or nothing pretty much, or it was top-10s, but for us, that's not good enough.”