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IndyCar Indianapolis 500

Josef Newgarden: Indy 500 poster boy or paddock pariah?

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden was meant to arrive at the Indianapolis 500 feted as the defending champion, but scandal and circumstance have muted his fanfare.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet waits for driver introductions with other drivers

Two-time IndyCar champion Newgarden was disqualified from his season-opening St. Petersburg victory due to illegal use of the push-to-pass system during restarts, after all three of Penske’s entries mistakenly ran with software that allowed him to do so.

Although he accepted the penalty, in an emotionally charged press conference at the next race at Barber, Newgarden revealed that he was under the misapprehension that it was legal to use push-to-pass at restarts, as per the exhibition race at Thermal, which occurred after the St. Pete season opener.

This version of events flew in the face of what his other team-mates, Will Power and Scott McLaughlin (who was also DQ-ed), had said.

This fact alone led one of his peers that I spoke to recently, under condition of anonymity, to state that “frankly I don’t buy it” and that Newgarden had “lost what respect I had for him”.

As a result of Team Penske’s detailed internal review, conducted by Roger Penske’s general counsel, no malicious intent was uncovered and the errors were made due to “significant failures in our processes and internal communications”.

Among the four personnel who were suspended for the Indy Grand Prix and the upcoming Indy 500 were Penske’s right-hand man, Tim Cindric, who has been the president of all its racing operations since 2006 and Luke Mason, Newgarden's race engineer, the man that Josef gave much credit for his 2023 Indy 500 success.

Cindric is also Newgarden’s strategist, so it’s a bit of a double whammy.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

When asked by Autosport at Indianapolis this week if he felt any guilt over his colleagues being suspended, Newgarden replied: “Oh, uh, I don't know that I feel guilt.

“I'll leave the team decisions to Roger Penske. You guys have heard from him.

“At this point the nice thing for me is when you speak the truth, you only gotta speak it once. So, after that, I'm ready to move forward.

“Look it's a complex situation right, in a lot of ways. But this is Roger Penske's team and I respect any decision he's gonna make. And he's really the source for any of that.”

Newgarden was pressed further, asked how he feels that some drivers still don’t believe him, and whether he’s felt any awkwardness in the garage…

“It's felt really good, to be honest, that's not been my experience so far,” he said. “Everything's felt pretty normal this month for me. So, from that standpoint, pretty happy.”

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

Newgarden then got into a spikey discussion with the AP’s Jenna Fryer about Graham Rahal, who – when asked earlier what Josef needs to do to regain trust or respect of his peers – Rahal replied: “I’d ask him. I don’t think he’s said a word to anybody.”

Newgarden’s response to that was fairly brusque: “I haven't talked to Graham, OK? There's a lot of guys here, right? How many guys you got here? 34 guys. Yeah, he's one person I haven't talked to. I can confirm that for sure.”

Another thing for sure is that he’s no longer the social butterfly that he was when he co-hosted the ‘Bus Bros’ YouTube show with team-mate McLaughlin, which ended abruptly at the end of last season.

The rollercoaster sequence of events that have unfolded for him since – including the significant milestone of winning the Daytona 24 Hours with Porsche – have really put him under scrutiny like never before.

And his contact-plagued IndyCar races that have resulted in 16th and 17th place finishes (including some wild practice spins) since the scandal was exposed show that perhaps not all is well as he attempts to bounce back from the turmoil.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Is Newgarden the Indy 500 poster boy or its paddock pariah? He’s both right now, in this writer's mind.

This whole episode has certainly dented Newgarden’s reputation as the Indy 500’s poster boy, but there’s certainly no crime in treating your rivals as enemies and not your friends – especially if they are complaining about you behind your back.

Driving for one of the best teams in the series, there’s a fair amount of professional jealousy aimed in his direction. His rivals know he’s always got great equipment beneath him, so the spectre of benefiting from an unfair advantage, like the push-to-pass scandal, only elevates their resentment.

But America’s racing history has plenty of fine examples of superstar drivers that weren’t universally liked…

For example, Dale Earnhardt built his ‘Intimidator’ NASCAR reputation on being utterly ruthless in combat, while his sworn enemy Jeff Gordon had Hendrick Motorsports’ famous ‘Rainbow Warriors’ on his side, and their ‘refuse to lose’ mantra that bent the rules as far as they could get away with.

Both had their fans, both had their haters; both were incredibly successful.

Newgarden isn’t in IndyCar to win any friends, he’s in it to win races.

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