SONOMA, Calif. (AP) – Roger Penske’s drivers had just finished 1-2-3 in the IndyCar standings, and shaking up his lineup didn’t seem to be a priority.
But with Josef Newgarden available in free agency, The Captain made a cutthroat move and bounced Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya out of his ride to sign the up-and-coming American.
Almost a year to the day later, the shrewd move resulted in a 15th IndyCar championship for Team Penske.
Newgarden closed out the best year of his career – his first with Penske – as the top driver in IndyCar. His nearly flawless performance Sunday at Sonoma Raceway made Newgarden only the second American in 11 years to win the IndyCar title, joining 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“When we saw he was available … I think we saw the opportunity,” Penske said. “I don’t think in business you always have the perfect time for something.”
Newgarden, a Tennessee native, is just 26 and the youngest driver to win the championship since Sam Hornish Jr. won it at 23 in 2002. Hornish went on to win a title driving for Penske, in 2006, and he’s the only other recent American champion.
Penske may have seen that potential when the team pursued Newgarden, but it was doubtful anyone expected a career season in his first stint driving Penske equipment.
“It obviously wasn’t an easy decision when we decided that Josef was available, and Montoya had done a really good job for us along the way, and we needed to make a decision if we were going to build for the future or what we were going to do,” team Penske team president Tim Cindric. “We sat down and talked to Juan, and he said, ‘Look, I don’t like it, but if I was in your shoes I’d do the same thing. He’s the guy that I would pick.’
“Honestly, we didn’t really know what to expect other than we knew how competitive he was and knew that he’d won in everything that he had really raced in and felt like we needed to continue to build for the future. If we weren’t racing with him, we were probably going to race against him soon.”
Newgarden had to hold off his three Penske teammates – as well as four-time champion Scott Dixon – to take the title. Penske driver Simon Pagenaud used pit strategy to win the caution-free race, but Newgarden finished second to take the title by 13 points.
Of the five drivers mathematically eligible to win the title in the finale, four came from Penske.
Pagenaud won the race in a last-gasp effort to defend the IndyCar title he won last year for Penske. Although his strategy was different from his teammates’, it put Pagenaud out front after his final stop.
Newgarden tried to catch him, was briefly aggressive as he attempted to reclaim the lead, then had to back off and think about the bigger picture.
“I was using my natural instincts. I was trying to get Pagenaud there because that’s what I normally do, I try to win the race whenever possible,” Newgarden said. “I tried to get him, but I also tried not to do anything dumb for the team. This has been a team effort.”
Will Power finished third in the race, Dixon was fourth and Helio Castroneves fifth in what might have been his final full season in IndyCar. Castroneves, in his 20th season, is likely being moved to Penske’s sports car program next year.
“Let’s see what’s going to happen,” Castroneves said. “Right now let’s celebrate the championship. I feel like I am part of it.”
It was an uphill fight for Dixon, in a Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and he didn’t have the same pace as the Penske cars all weekend. That meant Dixon would have to rely on an aggressive strategy to have a shot, but Newgarden and the Penske drivers were far too quick in their Chevrolets.
When Dixon tried to pit off sequence, he felt Castroneves copied the strategy in an effort to help Newgarden.
“He was just a massive roadblock,” Dixon said about Castroneves. “It was circumstance. Once we got clear track, we were able to hunt them down.”
The final standings went Newgarden, Pagenaud, Dixon, Castroneves and Power. Chevrolet drivers have won every championship but one since the engine-supplier returned to IndyCar in 2012, and the brand has beaten Honda every year for the manufacturer championship.
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