Newgarden begins another quest to win elusive Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Josef Newgarden walks into an interview at Indianapolis Motor Speedway waiting for the question. Again.

The two-time IndyCar champion realizes his annual May tradition is about to begin and he knows it's going to remain this way until he finally joins the Indianapolis 500 winner's club.

Until then, the most successful driver among the series' 30-something generation will cope with it in his own laid-back manner.

“You tune it out,” Newgarden said Tuesday, just feet away from the rain-drenched yard of bricks he yearns to kiss. “It's about the process. I'm more interested in doing the things I like being here for; everything else is more just noise.”

Make no mistake — Newgarden desperately wants to be called a 500 champion. And at age 32, it's the only significant line missing from what appears to be a Hall of Fame resume.

His 26 career wins are tied for 15th all-time and rank fourth among active competitors. Twenty-six drivers in series history own multiple series crowns and only 12 own more titles than Newgarden, who has been the runner-up each of the past three seasons.

The most recent win, last month at Texas, extended Newgarden's streak of consecutive seasons with at least one win to nine, and he's reached victory lane at 10 of this season's 14 venues including Indy's 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

Only Detroit, which will use a new street course this year; Portland, Laguna Seca and his hometown of Nashville, where he's posted four top-six finishes in nine career starts; and Indy's oval are missing.

And despite being 0 for 11 on the world's most famous oval, Newgarden has been in the annual mix.

He was among the top qualifiers in six of his first eight Indy starts, posted six top-10 finishes here with three different teams from 2014-20 and is one of two drivers to have completed every lap of the last five 500s. The other is six-time series champ and 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon and both have completed every lap in seven of the last eight 500s.

“That's good, you've got to do that,” Newgarden said. “That's part of giving yourself an opportunity, you've got to be on the track, you've got to be up front when it matters.”

But Newgarden is hardly alone when it comes to being shut out at Indy.

Michael Andretti led more 500 laps than any other non-winner and his father, 1978 world champion Mario, and son, Marco, have started 57 races without celebrating a win since Mario's lone win in 1969. Marco Andretti hopes to end that streak May 28.

In 2013, fan favorite Tony Kanaan ended his 0-for-11 streak with a popular post-race milk bath. Helio Castroneves, Newgarden's former teammate, won three times in his first nine Indy starts then needed 11 more to become the fourth four-time winner in 2021. Newgarden was there, too, when his teammate Will Power finally ended a 10-year Indy drought in 2018.

“I've always said it's a team sport and that's something people don't realize,” Castroneves said. “You need a lot of things to go right. You need to be in the right place, you need a little bit of luck and in the end, the track needs to pick you.”

The good news is Newgarden is with the right team.

Since Roger Penske returned to the IndyCar Series in 2001, only two full-time drivers have failed to win a 500 — Newgarden and Ryan Briscoe, who hasn't competed in the series since 2015.

Still, the waiting is the hardest part especially for someone as successful as Newgarden.

“I know how I would feel if I was him,” said 2019 Indy winner Simon Pagenaud, also a former teammate. “I would definitely be anxious about getting it done before my career ends. It’s the biggest race you want on your hunting board so it’s the one you want the most. If you can’t get it, it’s very frustrating.”

But Newgarden hasn't shown it.

He’s finished in the top five in points seven straight seasons and heads into this weekend’s two qualifying days sixth in points after winding up seventh in Saturday’s Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Newgarden had the fastest car on the oval during last month's testing, has been unflappably consistent since joining Team Penske and shows no indication of being distracted this month. He just wants to put a stop to the seemingly endless questions the best way he knows how — winning.

“I couldn't imagine what it's like winning the Indianapolis 500,” he said as rain washed out the first scheduled day of Indy practice. “For me, it's as simple as what's going to be, is going to be. I just work on what I can control and if it works out that would be beautiful.”

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