LONG POND, Pa. — As another late-season title chase intensifies, Josef Newgarden asserts he is a stronger, more-seasoned Team Penske driver now compared to when he won the NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2017.
Newgarden brings a 16-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi into today’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. And as beneficiary of Mother Nature washing out Saturday qualifying, he will start from the pole for a race in which he has been quick but never won. Meanwhile, the other top championship contenders -- Rossi, Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske and Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing -- will occupy the second, third and fourth starting positions, respectively.
The broadcast of the 200-lap, 500-mile race is at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN with the green flag at 2:45 p.m.
“I would say as far as me as a driver, I think you should get better every year, personally,” Newgarden said. “I feel like I've been better every year I've done this sport. That's why the veterans do so well, is because experience really pays quite a bit. It just does.
“So, yeah, I definitely feel like I'm a better driver than I was two years ago. I'm a better driver than I was five years ago. Every year you try to improve. I think you don't ever want to flatten out that learning curve. You always want to be getting better every single season.”
The 28-year-old Tennessean is a two-time runner-up on the 2.5-mile tri-oval known as “The Tricky Triangle.” He finished second in 2017 in a late-season push that earned him a championship. He was also second in 2015 for Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing.
A fifth-place finish at Pocono last year was a microcosm of Newgarden’s season. He was good, but not great in too many races. That’s why he finished fifth in the points.
At the end of Saturday’s two-hour practice session, Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet ranked 17th out of 22 cars on the speed chart.
“We just got to get it right,” Newgarden said. “Last year, I think we missed it by a little bit. I don't want to put it on time, but we kind of ran out of time last year to just nail the setup.”
Teammate Will Power won this race in 2016 and 2017 and was second last year.
“Obviously, it's a really tight, tight window,” Newgarden said. “I think Will was in the right place. You saw in the race he was strong. We were just slightly out of it. We were on defense all day last year, just trying to stay in the top five. It was really a struggle.
"But we've also been here, like in '17, had a strong race car. I think we've always kind of managed to be there at the end at this race. That's why we've got good results.”
That said, Newgarden doesn’t need to be reminded of the reality that he hasn’t won this race.
“I don't know, I think it will come at some point,” he said. “Kind of like Texas where we've had strong cars there, I felt like we could have won that race. Finally this year, it all kind of fell into the perfect window where we were able to do it.
“I don't know what it's going to be. We just got to keep staying close. I think if we keep putting ourselves in position, top three, top five, one of these days we're going to win this race. That's all we're focusing on right now.”
After a last-lap mistake at the Honda Indy 200 at the most recent race -- last month at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course -- cost him points and allowed Rossi, Pagenaud and Dixon to close the championship points gap, Newgarden has been anxious to get back on track and reassert his standing as the points leader to beat.
“I prefer to be in front. I think it's always better to be in the lead because then you can control it more so than chasing,” Newgarden said. “I don't remember how I felt necessarily going into Pocono. I just like we were in the points lead, that was a good thing.
“We've had that pretty much for the most part this year, which has been good. But it can change. I think history can rewrite itself pretty fast. Just because it worked out the way it did in '17, doesn't mean it's going to work out the same way this year. We have to stay on top of it.”
Newgarden said it took about 48 hours to accept and move on from an ill-advised pass attempt that led to bumping with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Newgarden ended up off track and 14th instead of fourth.
As much as he wishes there would have been a race the next weekend, Newgarden took advantage of the three-week break to get away from the racing world and recharge.
“I don't do anything in racing,” he said. “I’m at home on completely different things. It actually helps when you come back. You feel that energy. You feel that enthusiasm. You're excited to be there. It's almost nice having a little bit of a break, getting to miss it for a bit.”
As Newgarden has learned from the past, anything can happen at the end of a season.
“Look, four races to go with double points (at Laguna Seca), there's over 260 points on the table, it's huge,” he said. “That's a big swing that can happen.
“I think you see it throughout the year. You see these gaps open up. It's hilarious to read the articles because people will be like, ‘The championship, it's wide open now, because it got close.’ It opens up again, ‘Oh, it's only down to two, those are your two front-runners.’ It yo-yos all year.”
Newgarden suggested the best time to ascertain serious championship contenders is after the penultimate race, the Grand Prix of Portland on Sept. 1.
“OK, where is everyone at with one hundred points in Laguna, who is really in this battle?” he said. “Then you can start really narrowing in on it.
"It's going to change over these next four events one way or another. Maybe someone will rip a gap, it won't be close, or maybe it will stay tight, yo-yo a bit. You don't know what's going to happen.”
The ABC Supply 500 is the first of four races to close the 2019 season. NBCSN will have today’s television coverage at 2 p.m. ET (green flag at 2:45 p.m. ET). The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network provides the radio call, with coverage on SiriusXM Radio (XM 209, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).