ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Josef Newgarden had just won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for the second year in a row, but the Team Penske driver did not feel like celebrating.
He scored his fourth win of the season, tied for the 2020 season high in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, but it wasn’t enough for him to pump his fist in the air, exulting in his accomplishment.
Newgarden did everything he needed to do in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season finale Sunday by winning, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome Scott Dixon for the championship.
Newgarden entered the race weekend 32 points behind Dixon. If Newgarden scored maximum points by winning the pole, leading the most laps and winning the race, he would have won his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship if Dixon had finished worse than ninth.
By not winning the pole, or leading the most laps, Newgarden’s chances diminished further. All Dixon had to do to win his sixth NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship was finish 11th or better.
Dixon finished third in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, just behind Newgarden’s No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet and Pato O’Ward’s No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
“It's very bittersweet the way this all wrapped up,” Newgarden said. “I was a little bit somber coming into this weekend, to be honest with you, I think just because of the fact that we knew we didn't control our own destiny.
“We knew going into the weekend that we didn't have control over it. The only thing we could do was to take care of what we could control and try to win the race. If you win the race, it gives you the best opportunity to maybe win the championship.”
Newgarden still had many reasons to be proud. At the end of August, he was 117 points behind Dixon in the battle for the championship. Five races later, he closed the gap to 16 points at the end of the season.
Newgarden was on a charge worthy of a championship, but he was racing against a legend in Dixon, who kept his cool despite seeing his points lead dwindle.
“It's tough to get to this point, to look at the year, some of the things we've come back from, certainly how close we got, then to fall short,” Newgarden said. “At the end of the day, we did. We fell short. It just wasn't good enough.
“I think all we can do is shake our competitor's hand, tell Scott great job, tell his team great job, and come back next year and hit him harder. That's all we can really focus on at this point. That's what I'm going to focus on.
“I’m proud of what we did today. It was a really hard race. I guess it’s a decent way to go into the offseason with another victory and to hold our head up high.”
Newgarden started eighth and slowly drove his way into contention on what was a very treacherous and slippery track. With high temperatures and humidity, the restarts were especially dicey.
He never looked back to check on Dixon’s spot, but Newgarden sensed he was being shadowed by the driver seeking his sixth championship.
Newgarden’s spectacular ability as an INDYCAR driver was on full display on a Lap 80 restart. He took the lead when he drove to the inside of Alex Palou and Colton Herta.
“I knew on that restart Herta was one of the worst to get going with tire warm-up,” Newgarden said. “He seemed to struggle the most of anybody almost. I saw Palou kind of go for a pass on him. I knew on the inside it was going to be really tough to pull that off.
“I tried to position my car in the middle of them, just wait for an opportunity for them to open the door slightly. That door just kind of half-opened. I kept my line very tight to try to squeeze both of them, try to be a bit smoother on throttle, try to get the most out of it on cold tires. It was really all I could do. It was just enough to get around those guys on the outside.
“After that, I was just trying to hold everybody back.”
Newgarden had to survive one more restart on Lap 84 as the race leader and was 4.1409 seconds ahead of O’Ward when the checkered flag waved on Lap 100.
“All we could do was control what we were doing, where our car was, trying to win the race,” Newgarden said. “That's all I focused on. Once we got to the lead and made the pass, I was pretty happy. Just hoping things shook out for us, just trying to finish off and keep in the lead till the end.”
Newgarden did all he could do, and it still wasn’t enough.
As the Team Penske driver celebrated the win in Victory Lane, Dixon was celebrating the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship on another stage.
“On one hand, I'm really proud,” Newgarden said. “I think we've had phenomenal race cars.
“I'm disappointed. We could have won six or seven (races). I don't know that I would change much about what we did this year. I don't know that I'd ask our team to do much different. We sit down and analyze everything; I don't know that we missed steps very often. We got bit a couple times being in the wrong place, wrong time.
“As far as our decision-making, I was really proud of pretty much what we did all year.”
Newgarden knew the odds were stacked against him to win the championship. But it was important for the two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion to go down swinging.
“Hell, yeah,” Newgarden said. “Look, I show up to win every race, like any of these guys. If you don't have that mindset, I don't know what you're doing here. I'll always preach that.
“We went for the win today. Yeah, maybe there's some days you'll say we don't be as risky on strategy, we might pull back a bit on that approach. We gave it everything we had. We tried to win the race. That was our only focus.
“We shook our competitor's hand, told them good job, and will come back next year.”