Josef Newgarden became IndyCar’s youngest champion in over a decade and the series’ first American champ in five years. Newgarden had the most number of wins this season, so the championship fits. This was Newgarden’s first year with Team Penske. At age 26, he’s the fresh young face IndyCar needed to win.
Sonoma didn’t produce the exciting race many hoped for with seven different drivers in contention for the championship, with long stretches of near-processional racing on a track with few opportunities to pass.
Newgarden looked certain to win after starting the race from pole position and leading much of the race. However, a lap 63 pit stop put him on his final set of tires before Simon Pagenaud cycled through the pits. Pagenaud popped out of the pits ahead of Newgarden, muscling his car out on cold tires to stay ahead.
Newgarden wanted to pass Pagenaud for the win, but he and his team knew there was more on the line than just a race-winning trophy. He played it safe, not opting to eat into his push-to-pass button that would use up more fuel for a brief burst of speed. NBC Sports’ commentators noted that almost all of Newgarden’s push-to-pass capacity was left at end—something that’s almost unheard-of for an Indy race.
Pagenaud held onto his race lead until the very end, where he won at Sonoma and came in second in the 2017 championship. Newgarden came in second at Sonoma, but that was enough to give him the season win.
Hopefully Newgarden’s win is also good for IndyCar. IndyCar has been a tough place to break into in recent years, with so many proven, race-winning older drivers who are still competitive opting to stick around, not leaving any spots for younger talent to come in. Twenty-two-year-old Ed Jones ended up as IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year this year almost by default, as he was their only full-season rookie.
While I love to see guys like Scott Dixon and Will Power still out there winning, I hope Newgarden’s phenomenal championship is the nudge IndyCar needs to take more chances on younger talent. Let more new guys in to prove their worth. Shake up the series. It’s good for you.