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Josef Newgarden: 2023 Indianapolis 500 Champion

Image: Michael Conroy/AP

If you ask the average American to name three famous races in the world, they would probably only be able to name one. That race is the Indianapolis 500. For those who live in Speedway Indiana, the Indianapolis 500 is a month-long tradition. The entire month of May is enriched with history and tradition from years past. If you’re a driver in IndyCar, Indianapolis can either be very nice, or very cruel. For years, Indianapolis has been cruel to one driver. That driver is Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden. Newgarden has been Penske’s star driver since 2017 when Newgarden clinched his first championship. Year after year, the Indy 500 would slip from Newgarden’s grasp. But that curse for Newgarden is no more.  People can no longer say, “When?” His time is now.

A Race of Tradition:

As previously said, the month of May is a month of tradition. It’s a month of celebration. Originally known as “The International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race,” it was finally recognized as the Indianapolis 500 after WWII. So, what are these traditions that take place with the Indianapolis 500? Most notably, the drinking of milk in victory lane. After the Indy 500 in 1933, then-winner Louis Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk after his victory. This was the beginning of a long-time tradition. Another famous tradition of the Indy 500 is the kissing of the bricks. But who wants to kiss a greasy, oil-covered brick after 500 miles? The same racecar driver who just won the biggest race in the world. This tradition began after NASCAR Cup Series champion, Dale Jarrett won the 1996 Brickyard 400.

Jarrett and crew chief, Todd Parrott, walked out to the start/finish line, kneeled, and kissed the famous yard of bricks. Another Indianapolis tradition was born on that day. Since then, every Indy 500 winner and every NASCAR winner at the Brickyard has kissed those famous bricks. A very underrated tradition with Indianapolis is the start of the race. For the start, the field line up three abreast. This is the only race in the world that has the entire field starting three wide at the same time. The hollowed grounds of Indianapolis mean nothing to the average person. But to any racecar driver that has the goal of winning the Indianapolis 500, it’s everything. It’s nicknamed “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for a reason, and we saw that reason this past Sunday.

The American Dream:

Newgarden was born just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, on December 22nd, 1990. Newgarden competed in his first IndyCar race at St. Petersburgh, in 2011. His path toward the top wasn’t easy. If it was easy, then Newgarden wouldn’t be the type of driver he is today. When Newgarden started his career, he started with Sarah Fisher Racing. Newgarden would compete with the team for three seasons, earning his first podium at Baltimore in 2013. In 2015, Newgarden would finally earn his first IndyCar win at Alabama. Consistency led to more wins and podiums. Which led to a phone call. That phone call was from the captain, Roger Penske. Penske Racing and Newgarden started off the 2017 season with a bang. With a win at Alabama, the third race of the season, this was a great start to this partnership. Newgarden would finally claim the points lead after Mid-Ohio.

Newgarden would go on to win the 2017 IndyCar championship. He would also win the 2019 IndyCar championship, solidifying himself as one of the greats in the sport. He would come very close to winning the 2020 championship. But he would lose out to Scott Dixon in the final race at St. Petersburgh by 16 points. But one last box on the list of accomplishments remained unchecked for Newgarden. That was winning the Indianapolis 500. The one race that up until 2023 has haunted him for 12 years. But much like his path to IndyCar, the path to becoming an Indianapolis 500 champion is difficult. With the unknowns of Indy, this would be Newgarden’s most difficult accomplishment to date.

The Immortality of Indianapolis:

Newgarden qualified for this year’s Indianapolis 500 in 17th place, the middle starting spot of row six. As of race day on Sunday, Newgarden was +1400 odds to win the big race. The race may not have started the way that Newgarden had hoped for, but he eventually found his way to the front of the field. On lap 100, Newgarden finally cracked the top six. It was only upward from there. With a late-race restart with four laps to go, Newgarden would lead the field to green. Marcus Ericsson, last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, would pass Newgarden on the restart. Immediately as the green flag waved, the caution was back out for a crash in the back half of the field. It looked to be over for Newgarden. But the IndyCar officials decided to red-flag the race with three laps to go.

This would set up a one-lap shootout to determine the winner of the Indianapolis 500. As the race restarted with one lap to go, Ericsson would get a good jump on the final restart. But Newgarden got a huge run down the back straightaway and passed Ericsson into turn three. That’s all Newgarden needed. The pain was over. Josef Newgarden crossed the yard of bricks first, to win his first Indianapolis 500. How did he celebrate? Well, he went to go celebrate in the grandstands with the fans. Once a driver wins the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t change their year. It doesn’t change their career. It changes their life. Once a driver wins Indy, they have etched their names in the racing history books. Josef Newgarden has etched his name into racing immortality. This win has truly changed Josef Newgarden’s life forever.

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