SONOMA (AP) — It has been five years since IndyCar last had an American champion as the face of the series. This time, the series is far better positioned to properly wield its newest asset.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was largely ignored after his 2012 title, lost in the shuffle as IndyCar went through a tumultuous leadership change. With a stronger infrastructure and the power of the Penske brand, IndyCar has a shot to really push new champion Josef Newgarden to its audience.
Newgarden, in his first season driving for Roger Penske, won his first IndyCar title on Sunday with a steely showing at Sonoma Raceway. He’s only the third American series champion in the last 11 years. At just 26 years old, the Tennessee native is the youngest champion since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2002.
With almost six months to go before the 2018 season begins, IndyCar should have Newgarden carry them through the offseason.
“Look, I’ll carry the flag happily. I love the IndyCar Series,” said Newgarden. “I think it’s got the whole world in front of it. I’ll do the best that I can to help spread the word and show people how great this sport is.
“I think people have been catching on, to be honest with you, over the last couple years,” he said. “It’s not one big step, it’s going to be little steps at a time, and I think in the next five years hopefully we can be in an amazing place. I think we’re in a good place right now, but we want to be in an amazing place.”
A fresh face in Newgarden is a start, but IndyCar has a lot of work ahead.
The series will introduce a new car next season, and the driver lineups could look considerably different.
Helio Castroneves appears headed to sports cars in a Team Penske shuffle, and the move will cost the series one of its most popular drivers. The Brazilian is a 20-year series veteran, a “Dancing With the Stars” winner and a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion. Indianapolis Motor Speedway may be the only place he represents IndyCar next season.
Tony Kanaan, also in his 20th year, is ending a ho-hum tenure with Chip Ganassi Racing that produced only one victory in four seasons. Also one of the most popular drivers, Kanaan at least appears to be staying in the series, albeit with a smaller team in A.J. Foyt Racing.
The entire Ganassi organization could go from four cars to just two. There’s massive jockeying for seats in the paddock and movement is afoot, even for Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, who is leaving Andretti Autosport after just one Indy-winning season.
Penske understands that it’s difficult to groom young drivers in IndyCar, which doesn’t have the deeper feeder system of NASCAR. He planned accordingly for a changing of the guard in NASCAR, and next season will field three cars at the top level, with 33-year-old Brad Keselowski at the top of the age group.
Penske made the move a year ago to snag Newgarden in free agency , even though it meant taking a seat away from Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya. It was a move done for the future of his organization, and it resulted in a 15th IndyCar title for Penske.
The team also won 10 of 17 races, 11 poles and all four of its drivers finished in the top five of the final standings.
“The quality of the drivers coming up, we want to see that, and we have to be the catalyst to go out and look for this young talent because we don’t want to be changing drivers every year,” Penske said. “We need to hook ourselves into these young people, and I think you’re going to see a lot of them.”
Penske team President Tim Cindric has a 19-year-old son, Austin, who is literally racing in any series he can right now. Where he ultimately ends up — NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars — is uncertain. But like his boss, Cindric understands the need to help young drivers along.
“I think it’s all of our responsibility to continue to promote the next level because it’s not just on the racetrack,” Cindric said. “These personalities are the ones that everybody needs to see and understand, and you see the same type of thing happening in NASCAR right now. You look at Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and some of these guys going away and retiring, and already there’s guys that are coming up — the Kyle Larsons and the Ryan Blaneys and the Chase Elliotts of the world. That’s what IndyCar needs to continue to focus on, too.
“We need to figure out ways off the racetrack to continue to build these personalities because they’re there. We just need to get the word out.”
Newgarden is quite happy to do his part.