AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Josef Newgarden has already won two IndyCar Series championships and heads into the 2020 season chasing rare back-to-back crowns, something that hasn’t happened in nearly a decade.
Yet he’d give up a third title this season to win the Indianapolis 500.
“No doubt,” Newgarden said Monday as IndyCar gathered for two days of testing at the Circuit of the Americas ahead of the March 15 season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“Everybody knows it’s the hardest thing to win,” he said. “I’ve come to peace with Indianapolis Motor Speedway, though. That place doesn’t owe you anything. I don’t think it cares how many races you’ve won. It doesn’t care how fast you are that month of May. It doesn’t care how many championships you’ve won. It just doesn’t owe you anything.
“It’s one of those tricky places that sometimes it doesn’t work out for anybody, and sometimes it works out four times for a person,” Newgarden said.
The 29-year-old Team Penske driver has started the Indy 500 eight times, with a third-place finish in 2016 his only time on the podium. He was 19th there in 2017 when he won his first season championship, and was fourth last season.
“I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that maybe I’ll never win this race. Then again I might win it five years in a row,” Newgarden said. “I don’t obsess over it yet. .. That place chooses you one day.”
Penske driver Simon Pagenaud was the chosen one last season. The Frenchman won the 2016 championship and claimed his first Indy 500 victory last year, which he called a life-changing moment.
Since his victory, Pagenaud has been knighted by his country and became an answer to a question on the French version of “Jeopardy.”
“Its an incredible race that does more than just racing, I’ve gained recognition from my country,” Pagenaud said. “A lot of the pressure I put on myself is all gone. I feel more focused, more driven, but also more relaxed. I think I’ll be a better person and a better driver as well.”
The 2020 season promises all sorts of change, from the cockpits to behind the scenes.
The drivers will have to adjust to the new aeroscreen that is designed to protect their heads from debris. Only a handful of drivers have been able to test it so far, but that will change this week when they all get to use it in what’s expected to be two days of wet testing sessions in Austin.
IndyCar has been working on improved cockpit safety since 2011 when Dan Wheldon died from a head injury suffered when his car sailed into a fence at Las Vegas. The open cockpit left Wheldon’s head vulnerable will the car hit the fencing. Four years later, Justin Wilson was killed when a piece of debris hit his helmet during a 2015 race at Pocono.
“I haven’t even driven it, and I’m comfortable,” Graham Rahal said. “Does it look different? Sure. People haven’t seen it on an IndyCar like this, but that’s part of the evolution of life. It will be nice to have that comfort. I’m looking forward to it.”
Billionaire businessman Roger Penske now owns the series and the leader of teams that have won 18 Indianapolis 500s will take himself out of the pit stand this season. He’ll watch the races from a luxury suite with scanners to listen to all team communication.
The drivers were universal in their praise of Penske’s takeover, whether they drive for “The Captain” or not.
“The fact that someone has such a history in the sport and not only has the knowledge and the capability to make it better but also the passion to make it better, is very cool,” said Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner. “I couldn’t think of a better person, or a better group to take over the legacy.”
The 2020 driver field will include several getting their first full-time shot at IndyCar, including the Arrow McLaren lineup of Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew, the last two Indy Lights champions. Last season saw a brilliant rookie battle between Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist and Santino Ferrucci.
Herta won twice with Harding Steinbrenner Racing and became IndyCar’s youngest winner at 18 with his victory in Austin. Rosenqvist took rookie of the year honors with a more consistent season at Chip Ganassi Racing.
More will be expected of Herta in 2020, especially now that Harden Steinbrenner has merged under the Andretti racing umbrella and will race as Andretti Harding Steinbrenner.
“Last year we were the little team that could,” team owner George Steinbrenner IV said. “Being integrated into a powerhouse team, we have to feel like a powerhouse team. We have to go into every race like we can win.”