Column: Newgarden showed mettle needed to win IndyCar title

(AP Photo/Scott Kane)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

(AP) -- In just the third race of his rookie season, Josef Newgarden proved that he wasn't afraid to attack on the race track.

Newgarden was 21 when he lined up on the front row, next to four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, for the start of the 2012 race at Long Beach. As the rookie and the veteran sped toward Turn 1 on the opening lap, Newgarden made a bold move to attempt to take the lead away from Franchitti from the outside lane.

It was a narrow passing zone to begin with, and Newgarden wound up in a tire barrier in what was a race-ending crash. He emphatically said he did nothing wrong, Franchitti said there was no contact from his end with Newgarden, and IndyCar found the replays inconclusive.

While that will hardly be the defining moment of Newgarden's career, it certainly showed he was fearless - maybe even stupid to go wheel-to-wheel with Franchitti at that moment - and that he won't back down to anyone.

And that's what leads us to Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis, where Newgarden won for a series-best fourth time this season. This win, though, may have wreaked a bit of havoc at Team Penske.

Simon Pagenaud is the reigning IndyCar champion and in his third season driving for Penske. Newgarden is in his first season with the team, and sits on top of the IndyCar points standings with two races remaining. Despite their status as teammates, Pagenaud was unhappy with the way Newgarden made what was ultimately the race-winning pass. Newgarden moved inside of Pagenaud on a restart and the two cars made contact. As Pagenaud drifted off of Newgarden, both Newgarden and Scott Dixon slipped past and Pagenaud wound up third.

The Frenchman's anger over what he called a "NASCAR move" was evident in his body language on the post-race podium, and he intimated if the two weren't teammates "he would be in the fence."

Pagenaud talked about losing respect for Newgarden, and that Newgarden's move showed how little respect the young American has for the champion.

Newgarden didn't seem to think there was an issue.

"He knows we're racing. He knows we're going to race in the future. We're going to race for many years," Newgarden said. "This isn't the first time we'll battle, I'm sure. Hopefully he knows next time it's getting a little tight in the corner, give me a little more room."

Good for Newgarden.

In giving Penske its fifth consecutive victory, he showed a mettle that is absolutely required to be a champion. Franchitti and Dixon may be gentlemen off the track, but they didn't combine for eight championships by not seizing opportunities on the track.

Opportunities aren't easy to come by in open-wheel racing, and Newgarden has been trying to make it to the top level for quite some time. The Tennessee native tried the Europe route, came back to the U.S. and has had to work his way into a winning ride over the last decade.

He's driving for his third team in six IndyCar seasons, in part because his three wins driving for Ed Carpenter Racing made him a hot commodity for team owners who have to look to the future. Penske did that, booting Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya out of his seat to give Newgarden a chance.

Newgarden, with three wins in the last four races, has absolutely flourished in this career-changing opportunity. He has a 31-point lead over Dixon, while Pagenaud is currently fourth in the standings, 43 points back. In fact, Penske as an organization is doing well. All four of its drivers have a win this season and are ranked first, third, fourth and fifth in the standings.

More important, Newgarden had the support of Penske after the race, with the boss calling his race-winning move a good pass.

So good for Newgarden, who was racing for a win, and, bigger picture, his first major American championship. If the boss doesn't have a problem, then neither should Pagenaud.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

Updated August 28, 2017

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