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“It was a blur” - Newgarden on going back-to-back in the Indy 500

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Following a last-lap pass on Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward at Turn 3, Josef Newgarden has become the first driver to defend an Indianapolis 500 victory since Helio Castroneves won in 2001 and 2002. Taking his second win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in as many attempts after 12 years of waiting, he has earned Roger Penske his 20th Indy 500 crown.

It further solidifies the two-time series champion’s status as a modern great of the IndyCar Series after a difficult start to the 2024 season. And a last-gasp overtake was a fitting end to a race involving 649 on-track passes - the most since 2017 at the Speedway - and 49 lead changes. It was a show beyond worth four hours of delays courtesy of rain.

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing? The most apt of taglines. 

The achievement of going back-to-back

“You can’t win this race on a whim,” Newgarden said. “It rarely happens that way. There’s no guarantees and it’s about getting every little detail right. We didn’t make mistakes today. We didn’t make mistakes last year. I think the team deserved both of them.”

There were parallels between Newgarden’s victory last year and this. Both came courtesy of final lap passes after the run off Turn 2, even if after a long green flag period this year as opposed to a one-lap shootout in 2023. And while he led 26 laps across the race this year, it was again a well-timed, decisive pass that secured him the win at the death. 

And his reward for going back-to-back is a $440,000 “big bonus” - which “everyone deserves” in Newgarden’s eyes - courtesy of Borg-Warner. That is $20,000 for every year since the last back-to-back victor - a win at the Speedway being something Newgarden was at peace with never achieving.

“Someone had to reset the bank and I guess we did,” Newgarden joked. “I had let go of the thought of winning this race last year. It’s so difficult to win. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how well you execute… it does not guarantee a victory at Indianapolis ever. 

“Last year I really started focusing on just the opportunity and saying: ‘This is so fun that we get to show up here and we’ve got great cars, we’ve got a great crew and we have an opportunity to win the race.’ I said if we win it, that’s great. But it’s the opportunity that’s the joy of it. 

“It is very difficult to win the race. It’s very difficult to win it back-to-back. I’m over the moon. I’ve got no words for what we’ve been able to do. I’m really proud of this team. They deserve it.”

Newgarden described his two wins as “both incredibly satisfying” despite the different lead-up to the similar endings given the caution-filled climax in 2023. He had also started third in 2024 compared to 17th last season.

He has become the 11th two-time Indy 500 winner and only the sixth to do so back-to-back.

Victory No.20 for Roger Penske

On Carb Day, Team Penske earned ‘The Captain’ Roger Penske his 19th Pit Stop Competition victory as Newgarden’s No.2 team produced the fastest stop in the tournament’s history in the final against O’Ward. This added to Penske’s 19 Indy 500 poles and 19 Indy 500 victories.

But one year on from Penske’s parking spot at IMS - the facility that he now owns - being changed to ‘19’ to reflect Newgarden notching the team’s 19th victory at the Speedway, the '19' is becoming '20'.

“It’s probably already changed,” Newgarden said. “I’d be surprised if it’s not.”

And just like his boss, the numbers are “very important” to Newgarden, whose Indy 500 victory is the 30th win of his career.

“One of the things that I love about [Roger] is his vision to always be moving forward,” he said. “You don't have the success and the integrity of someone like Roger Penske without that vision. I have seen it personally over the last eight years. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and the numbers matter. I know how bad he wanted 20. 

“I can tell you I really wanted the second one and this entire group wanted to win today.. Why do we show up if we don’t care about it? We care tremendously.”

At Penske, ‘execution’ is a watchword that continuously rears its head. The ‘Penske Perfect’ saying is not unfounded and Penske holds everybody on his team to the highest of standards. He expects his drivers to be winning.

“He was the same RP,” Newgarden said. “He’s not changed. He was happy for the group. When Roger sees everybody execute, there’s nothing that makes him happier because that’s what we preach. We try to work together as a team. It is one team. He genuinely does not care which car wins the race…

“I’m going to tell you, he’s going to be on to No.21 now. Everybody thought he wanted 20 and that’s his number but like he’s going to be: ‘Okay, how do we get to 21?’ He might even say something silly like we’ve got to get to 25 or something. I just love it. I love his mentality.”

A grandstand last lap pass

The roar of the crowd said it all.

It is not an understatement to suggest Newgarden pulled off one of the all-time great overtakes to win the race. It was beyond audacious, almost unthinkable, to go around the outside of Turn 3 in the fashion that Newgarden did. But it was a fitting end to a thrilling race contested as tightly and, at times, frenetically as it could have been.

“Hard to know if it’s going to work,” Newgarden said. “I don’t think it works unless you’re racing someone like Pato. It’s not that Pato didn’t race me hard, he just raced me clean. That move doesn’t work unless you're racing someone like that… From our side, we left it all on the track. There was nothing that we were going to come home and regret. 

“I’m like: ‘We’re going to put it all on the line.’ You have to if you want to win Indy. That’s just the way it’s got to be, especially nowadays. It was enough. Our car was so fast. It was a little hairy at the end as far as the trickiness. But we had it all day as far as the commitment and the car and the team. And we laid it all out there in Turn 3.”

Newgarden’s acting strategist Jonathan Diuguid said he told his driver he would “have to do it the old fashioned way” in the final stint, which impressively went caution-free after eight prior yellow periods.

“The old fashioned way is passing on track and that’s what we did,” he said. “And there were some amazing restarts in addition to the pass on the outside of Turn 3 that everyone on the timing stand stopped looking at the television screens because we didn’t know if we were going to come out the other side.”

The cooler conditions later in the day - almost unprecedented after early-day uncertainty over whether forecasted storms would allow for any running - helped to play a part in even further enhancing the traditional gloves-off ending to the race.

“It actually brought a trickier balance and I think just helped everybody gain a lot more grip,” Newgarden said. “It just made the battle even more fierce at the end because no one is really fading within a tyre run. Everyone is just able to push flat out and stay pretty close.”

“I enjoyed driving today”

Newgarden spoke a lot about revising his approach and paring down his responsibilities at the start of the 2024 IndyCar season. He wanted to get back to enjoying racing, which was not always the case in 2023 despite breaking his Indy 500 duck. But despite a rocky month for Newgarden and his team, he thoroughly enjoyed Sunday’s race.

“That’s how I started this year,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to get back to.” 

There was no pressure on Newgarden to be at the front race-long, with Diuguid saying that it was agreed that “dropping back to seventh or eighth” could be helpful in periods of fuel saving. Then as the race progressed into its latter stages, that is when Newgarden was advised to get into the top three before an “all-out blast” in the closing 15 laps.

And again, the execution was perfect and Newgarden methodically worked his way forward.

“The team was really, really in step with what was going on and giving me all the right information,” Newgarden said. “And then it comes down to trying to make the right moves at the right time. I think I misstepped a little bit after probably lap 130, 140. And then there was a little bit of a recovery mode to that. 

“When we showed up we felt like we had a race-winning car. It was very evident to all of us. And we were trying to put the pieces together correctly and not misstep. We’re not going to lose this race because of the car, we’re going to lose it if we don’t do the job correctly. And everybody did the job correctly. I think that’s why it was pulled off.”

Throughout the fortnight on the IMS oval, it was often a rotation of the Penske cars at the top of the field. The quality control between their three entries was almost unprecedentedly impressive as they continued to look well-balanced whether in qualifying or race trim. And after all, it was Newgarden that was able to get the job done.

Celebrating with the crowd again

After winning his first Indy 500 last year, Newgarden made an immediate beeline for a gap in the catch fence on the front stretch, right by where he had parked up on the famed bricks. He admitted it was entirely premeditated - he had been thinking about it long before the event. But it was iconic. 

He intended to make his way up the steps and into the stands but quickly found himself swarmed by fans. So when he repeated his victory this year, he had to give it another shot. He is firstly greeted by his team as he jumps from his car in celebration. And then to the fence again, where he did make it even deeper this year.

“It was very similar,” Newgarden said. “You don’t know that you’re ever going to win this race. Of course you could dream about it. How could you not? I’ve dreamed about winning this race for years, but you never know you’re going to win it until you’re winning it. 

“That’s right before the line that you know you’re winning it. It’s very spur of the moment and I just wanted to get back to what we did last year.”

Newgarden admitted the end of the race “was a blur” after a “flat out” climax, which saw the lead change multiple times.

“No one was lifting or giving anything up,” he said. “I felt like I was wrecking half the time and it looked like others were kind of the same way. It was just full on. When I crossed the line, just shut the engines off; you’re still in full-out mode. I just tried to process it very quickly, which is difficult to do in a minute, trying to get back to the start-finish line.”

Working with different personnel

Once Newgarden had taken a few gulps of milk in victory circle, he was handed a phone. On the other side of the line? His absent race engineer Luke Mason.

“It was good to see him,” Newgarden said. “Apologies for the F word.”

Both Mason and strategist Tim Cindric - also team president at Penske - were suspended as a result of an internal investigation off the back of the recent push-to-pass debacle. Raul Prados stepped over from the team’s sportscar programme as acting race engineer along with Diuguid, who is managing director of the Porsche Penske Motorsport programme.

“I haven’t [spoken to Cindric],” Newgarden said. “I look forward to it. But we’re going to celebrate as a group tonight. I’ll talk to him at some point soon.”

Diuguid had “finished second a couple of times” as engineer for Helio Castroneves in IndyCar but had never won the Indy 500, much to Newgarden’s surprise. He said he felt “a little bit guilty” that he slotted into what he believed was an operation “going smoothly” anyway. But Newgarden was full of praise.

“It was tough not having my normal reality here this weekend,” he said. “But I was just as excited to have Jonathan and Raul. I think very highly of these two individuals. The circumstances, the camaraderie, the time that we got to spend together out of chance… this wasn’t supposed to happen. To be able to pull it off together, it ranks very, very high for me.”

Newgarden went as far as saying he would willingly step into any of Penske’s cars, such is the depth within their arsenal of personnel. Being able to get across the line and win his second consecutive Indy 500, despite the suddenly altered personnel situation, validates the drivers’ comments about how deep Penske’s talent pool is.

“I missed Tim, I missed Luke,” Newgarden said. “But I was just as happy to have Jonathan and Raul. It was different but they’re just as good. This team has no shortage of excellence across the board. I would step into any one of these cars.”

“This team earned this win”

Newgarden and his Penske teammates Scott McLaughlin and Will Power have heaped praise on their team for their efforts in the lead-up to the 108th Running of the Indy 500. They locked out the front row, with McLaughlin on pole, and taking the win further vindicated the efforts put in by the Penske organisation.

“This team earned this win the entire month,” Newgarden said. “They’ve earned it the entire year. You have no idea how much effort has gone into this. It’s every individual. That is what Indy exemplifies - it exemplifies the team. And to show it in qualifying, to show it in the race is a proud moment for everybody.”

Diuguid said he has been a part of Indy 500 attempts “probably over 15 times” yet has never experienced such smooth preparation. And that smooth preparation translated into utter domination from Penske when all was said and done.

“We showed and cars were fast out of the box,” he said. “And when you’re in a situation like that you can start to focus on the details. The details are what got it done today. I was talking to Raul after the race and turned to him and said: ‘Raul, I don’t think we made any mistakes today.’ And that’s what it takes to be in a position like we were at the end.”

Newgarden had confidence in the car month-long from the moment he topped the open test at IMS in April. Ultimately, he puts his ability to follow other cars so closely in the crucial stages and pounce on the final lap down to the efforts put into refining his race car by the team.

“It’s a byproduct of an excellent race car,” he said. “I’m not going to take credit for being able to follow that closely. If the car can’t do it, it can’t do it. In oval racing you can’t force these things. It’s very much a team aspect. You have to have the race car just dialled perfectly to be able to do that stuff. It has been really fun to drive all month. 

“It’s been pretty simple. We’ve not really stepped outside of our box much. It was really well orchestrated and we just tried to hit our points and execute well. That was a byproduct of a great car.”

Lessons from the last month

There has been lots of media spotlight, and scrutiny, on Newgarden since he was disqualified for the illegal use of push-to-pass during the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. And speaking after his victory at IMS on Sunday, he was very reflective about the past month at Penske. 

“In an odd way, I’m grateful for the experience,” he said. “It’s been a very illuminating experience to me, more from the outside world. I know what I take from that personally. I know what it showed me, which I’m thankful for. I think it shows you things that maybe weren’t fully clear but are very clear now. 

“I think it’s an experience that it’s got to either break you or tough you up. And for me, that’s all I’ll say about it. We’ve been moving forward. We’ve never worked together more as a group than this weekend. This is the most tight-knit team I’ve ever seen. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of it because it’s such a well-conjoined group. Everybody works so well together. 

“It’s fun to show up here. It’s fun to go to work. I’ve never had it better than this month.”


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