Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
Next up on the IndyCar schedule is the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville. For Josef Newgarden, this is as close to home as you can possibly get.
But, away from his native city in Tennessee, there is somewhere you could argue, in racing terms, has grown even more home-like for Newgarden. And that place is Iowa Speedway.
Newgarden is very much the king of short ovals, and even more widely, ovals in general. Coming off a clean sweep in the 2023 Iowa Doubleheader, he now has 29 career wins in the series - 15 of them on ovals. Of those 15 victories, 11 have come on short tracks, four at Gateway, and now an astonishing six at Iowa.
At present, Newgarden is nigh on unbeatable around ovals, having won eight of the 10 most recent races on that configuration of track, including his long-awaited maiden Indianapolis 500, dating back to 2021. Further, he is on a streak of five successive oval victories, a run only matched by the great AJ Foyt and Al Unser Sr through IndyCar history.
Newgarden is an undisputed great of the series, and in the debate for the greatest oval driver IndyCar has seen, Iowa is undoubtedly the most stark encapsulation of his formidability.
Coming into the 2023 HyVee IndyCar Weekend at Iowa, Newgarden had led 1506 laps in the prior nine races at the track, with the next closest total a mere 267 from Helio Castroneves. And with the 2023 doubleheader complete, Newgarden has led 1847 laps in the last 11 races at Iowa, having led 341 in 2023, with Will Power the next closest with 351 laps led across that 11-race period..
The Iowa story started in 2012 for Newgarden, driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, finishing 19th on his first outing at the track, and progressing to finish 15th a year later. It was 2014 when he really announced himself in the Midwestern state, though, notching second-place for what would be the first of eight podiums at the track.
Following back-to-back second-places, including for CFH Racing in 2015, Newgarden’s maiden Iowa win came for Ed Carpenter Racing in 2016. It took until 2019 before he would win on his third attempt for Penske, but he has only twice missed out on victory in six races since then.
Barring a mechanical failure preventing an inevitable win in the second race in 2022, Newgarden hasn’t finished outside of the top six at the track since his opening two of 14 races at Iowa. And taking away that anomalous result last year, he has averaged a finishing position of 2.2 in the last 11 races he has finished at Iowa, dating back to 2014.
Newgarden will no doubt have felt he should have swept the Iowa weekend in 2022, but he came back with a point to prove in 2023. From the outset, he seemed destined to make sure he made up for his misfortune one year prior.
He rolled out in practice, and was clear of the field by almost a whole mile per hour within the opening 15 minutes, seamlessly getting up to speed. And while qualifying third and seventh wasn’t perfect, he proved once again that the races are where it matters most.
He actually had a troubled first stint in the opening race, but outlining his intelligence and the bulletproof operation of his No.2 crew, adjustments were made in the opening pit stop, and astronomical improvements ensued.
It was a story of Penske prominence all weekend, and having qualified one-two-three, there came a time when all three drivers battled intensely during the weekend’s first race. Even while tussling - in creditably clean fashion - the trio still maintained superior pace, which is an incredible reflection of the team finding a balance that led to the fastest qualifying and race cars (given parc ferme conditions were entered ahead of the opening race).
Once Newgarden passed Power on lap 121, there was no looking back. Scott McLaughlin had started to pressurise Power at that stage, but Newgarden proved his edge at Iowa by passing both teammates - something that would be repeated come Sunday’s race.
McLaughlin finished the opening race in second behind Newgarden, while an error leading to wall contact for Power meant he had to settle for fifth. This came after Newgarden had gone through tapes of past races at Iowa with his close friend beforehand, with the education from the track’s master evidently paying dividends for McLaughlin.
As would be repeated one day later, Newgarden controlled affairs as soon as he took the lead, including dealing well with a caution restart following an incident for Graham Rahal.
“Guys, I’m chilling. Let me know if I’m chilling too much,” Newgarden even said on the radio at one stage. And while he did voice his frustration at the etiquette of some lapped cars, who mirror-blocked him, post-race. He appeared composed and measured when navigating traffic, not taking unnecessary risks, but able to extend his lead when required.
It seemed the second race would provide somewhat more of a challenge for Newgarden, but such is his pedigree at Iowa, he surged forward like a man possessed. He made some decisive early moves to move into third, and in pursuit of his teammates before 30 laps were even hit, and on lap 31, he produced a sensational overtake on Power and McLaughlin in the same corner.
Racing at Iowa has been likened to sports car racing, whereby a disparity between cars’ pace at different stages of the race is akin to different classes. Once again controlling the race as soon as he took the lead, it became apparent that Newgarden was, once more, in a category of his own.
There were three restarts to marshal, including in the closing laps on old tyres, and the likes of his teammates and Felix Rosenqvist had to be fended off, but Newgarden was in a different league, in terms of being able to overcome all of the challenges posed around Iowa.
The absence of any complacency after winning on Saturday was mightily impressive, and if it wasn’t for his suspension failing when leading the second race in 2022, Newgarden could easily have five successive wins at Iowa, plus seven on ovals, and have won half of the races he has competed in at the track.
For Newgarden to so consistently excel at Iowa is no mean feat, given what a significant challenge the track is. With lap times under 20 seconds, the 0.875 mile oval is the fastest short track in the world, so much so that a pit stop will routinely put you two laps down. It is extremely bumpy too, meaning drivers have to be fighting the car at times.
Across such a short lap, the margins are so fine - much more than ‘just turning left’. The precision required lap-by-lap is massive, and the factor of effectively navigating the inevitable traffic of lapped cars from very early in races can separate drivers - evident as Rosenqvist’s pressure on Newgarden was curtailed during the second race, and the American pulled away.
The awareness of drivers is massively important, judging the different closing speeds when approaching slower cars, or being approached by cars on faster tyres. Confidence and bravery to use multiple lines, while staying out of the collection of tyre marbles, is a necessity to avoid losing time, and possibly suffering a race-ending incident.
So much management is required beyond this as well, with tyre degradation a huge talking point at Iowa, adding a strategic element that has to be executed by drivers. This management even extends to having to time breaths, with G-forces so high that drivers need to hold their breath for most of a lap. The physical challenge is extreme in high temperatures, too.
Where other drivers may fall short with so much to contend with, Newgarden rises to the many challenges Iowa offers - and has mastered them too.
His prowess on short ovals is an admiration, and while it can be perceived as tedious, having an element of predictability on short ovals, and even superspeedways at present, it is awe-inspiring to watch a genuine master at work.
He came into the Iowa weekend third in the championship, 126 points adrift of Alex Palou. Now, after the Iowa doubleheader, with one short oval remaining, he is second, and has closed the gap by 46 points, to sit only 80 adrift of Palou.
A championship remains a long-shot, but Newgarden’s preeminent oval form means he has the same amount of wins as runaway championship leader Palou this season, and he can be considered at least somewhat of a title contender.