Josef Newgarden

LONG POND, Pa. — As another late-season title chase intensifies, Josef Newgarden asserts he is a stronger, more-seasoned Team Penske driver now compared to when he won the NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2017.

“I would say as far as me as a driver, I think you should get better every year, personally,” Newgarden said. “I feel like I've been better every year I've done this sport. That's why the veterans do so well, is because experience really pays quite a bit. It just does.

“So, yeah, I definitely feel like I'm a better driver than I was two years ago. I'm a better driver than I was five years ago. Every year you try to improve. I think you don't ever want to flatten out that learning curve. You always want to be getting better every single season.”

Newgarden made those remarks before finishing fifth in Sunday's ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. With Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport being collected in a first-lap, multi-car accident and finishing 18th, Newgarden will take a 35-point lead over Rossi into Saturday night's Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

The 28-year-old Tennessean is a two-time runner-up on the 2.5-mile tri-oval known as “The Tricky Triangle.” He finished second in 2017 in a late-season push that earned him a championship. He was also second in 2015 for Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing.

A fifth-place finish at Pocono last year was a microcosm of Newgarden’s season. He was good, but not great in too many races. That’s why he finished fifth in the points.

Teammate Will Power won this race Sunday for the third time in four years.

After a last-lap mistake at the Honda Indy 200 at the most recent race -- last month at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course -- cost him points and allowed Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon to close the championship points gap, Newgarden has been anxious to get back on track and reassert his standing as the points leader to beat.

“I prefer to be in front. I think it's always better to be in the lead because then you can control it more so than chasing,” Newgarden said. “I don't remember how I felt necessarily going into Pocono. I just like we were in the points lead, that was a good thing.

“We've had that pretty much for the most part this year, which has been good. But it can change. I think history can rewrite itself pretty fast. Just because it worked out the way it did in '17, doesn't mean it's going to work out the same way this year. We have to stay on top of it.”

Newgarden said it took about 48 hours to accept and move on from an ill-advised pass attempt that led to bumping with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Newgarden ended up off track and 14th instead of fourth.

As much as he wishes there would have been a race the next weekend, Newgarden took advantage of the three-week break to get away from the racing world and recharge.

“I don't do anything in racing,” he said. “I’m at home on completely different things. It actually helps when you come back. You feel that energy. You feel that enthusiasm. You're excited to be there. It's almost nice having a little bit of a break, getting to miss it for a bit.”

As Newgarden has learned from the past, anything can happen at the end of a season.

“Look, four races to go with double points (at Laguna Seca), there's over 260 points on the table, it's huge,” he said. “That's a big swing that can happen.

“I think you see it throughout the year. You see these gaps open up. It's hilarious to read the articles because people will be like, ‘The championship, it's wide open now, because it got close.’ It opens up again, ‘Oh, it's only down to two, those are your two front-runners.’ It yo-yos all year.”

Newgarden suggested the best time to ascertain serious championship contenders is after the penultimate race, the Grand Prix of Portland on Sept. 1.

“OK, where is everyone at with one hundred points in Laguna, who is really in this battle?” he said. “Then you can start really narrowing in on it.

"It's going to change over these next four events one way or another. Maybe someone will rip a gap, it won't be close, or maybe it will stay tight, yo-yo a bit. You don't know what's going to happen.”