Exclusive sitdown with Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden: ‘Truthfulness is really important to me’

Exclusive sitdown with Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden: 'Truthfulness is really important to me'

INDIANAPOLIS – Kissing the bricks for two-time defending Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden was a little sweeter this year because of a kiss on the bricks.

During the annual photo shoot on Memorial Day Monday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Newgarden shared a special smooch from his 2-year-old son, Kota, as wife and mom Ashley Newgarden watched from beneath the flagstand several feet away.

“He's just a cutie; he’s the best,” a beaming Newgarden said about Kota during the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “I mean, man, it really changes your life and perspective when you have a kid, so I understand now. It's like winning Indy! You just don't know until you go through it.”

After an agonizing 12-year wait to reach Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Team Penske superstar now seems to own the deed to the place. Newgarden became the sixth driver to win consecutive Indy 500s (and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02) by outdueling Pato O’Ward in a thriller for the ages – or at least since last year.

The 108th Indy 500 was the second consecutive won by Newgarden on a last-lap pass in the No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet (there have been only four last-lap passes for the victory since the race’s 1911 inception).

And now that the two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion has gotten the hang of the Brickyard, Newgarden said Kota also has been an ace since the checkered flag fell.

“What was amazing was that he handled it all so well, not just (Monday), but (Sunday), too,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “I was shocked. I mean, when you have a 2-year-old, they don't know everything that's going on, and it's very reasonable for them to get upset at different times. It was also pretty late. I just was blown away how cool and calm he was. I mean he really looked like he almost enjoyed some of it, and we got him to do some cool stuff. He kissed the bricks with us. That was amazing.

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“Just the way he did it and then he loves to clap whenever we get something done. So he clapped afterwards, and it was the same thing (Monday) morning. He just kind of knew what to do. I was like, ‘Let's look this way. Let's take some photos,’ and he was like a pro. So I don't know what to think of that. He loves cars. Anytime he sees a car, it's always Dada's car. Every car. So yeah, he's learning, but man, it’s just so fun to have him here.”

In an exclusive conversation Monday afternoon with NBC Sports, Newgarden discussed his ongoing rivalry with runner-up Pato O’Ward; how it feels to win in two epic Indy 500 endings; fan reaction after the push-to-pass scandal; the status of his contract year; and whether he still can win the championship (this interview has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity):

Q: Pato initially seemed disconsolate after the defeat. Have you been able to watch any of his interviews yet?

Newgarden: “I haven't, no. My wife said it was very heartbreaking, and she was pretty adamant that I spoke with him, and we texted. (Oh, you did, OK.) Yeah, we did text. I mean, we talk every now and then, and he's always been great. I think we have a lot of respect for each other. At least, that's the way I've always understood it between us, and we've had a lot of battles on track, especially on ovals. We're going to set a record for 1-2 as far as individuals together on ovals. So we've had some history. Ashley was like, ‘This was just devastating what happened to him.’ She felt so bad and I'm like, ‘Ash, like What do you want to tell you?’

"She has seen the heartbreak that I have gone through. I mean it is terrible to lose this race. Second is probably the most terrible, but it’s terrible for everybody. Whether you're last or you're first, I mean look at what happened to (Marcus) Ericsson. He went out on the first lap, and I don't think it was even his fault. You pour your heart and soul into this race. Kyle (Larson)'s got to be feeling this, too. It's the first time he's ever experienced this, and you're like, ‘Wow, I put a lot into that, and I didn't get anything near what I wanted.’ And that's why Indy is so damn cool. Because when you get it right, and you finally win it, it's just this other level of gratification because everybody poured their heart and soul into it. So I say all that because that's what Pato is feeling, and of course I feel for him, but I'm just like on the other end of the spectrum, and I just learned what that other end was last year.”

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Q: Scott Dixon said Sunday night if you finish second this race, you'd almost rather finish last.

Newgarden: “Oh, yeah, I think he's right.”

Q: I quoted the stat to Pato about the number of times you have finished 1-2 together.

Newgarden (smiling): “Which would have made it worse for him, you quoting that to him.”

Q: Well, I had to as a journalist! It’s an amazing stat. You guys have finished 1-2 in eight races, and you have won six of them.

Newgarden: “Yeah, probably in like three years or something.”

Q: And I didn't want to bring this up, but it was actually nine races, but technically we are no longer counting St. Pete (when Newgarden’s win was disqualified).

Newgarden (smiling): “Yeah, well, the record books wouldn’t count that. But on the road, it's nine. So it would have been seven of the nine that I won. I just wanted to make sure I understood the numbers. Just for myself.

Q: But when I asked Pato about the stat, he was very gracious in his answer about his respect for you, and you guys always have had that relationship where it’s almost as if you’re his big brother sometimes. So in a way, I’m sure you would console him, but there’s only so much you can do after winning the Indy 500 for the second year in a row?

“Well, I would console him. My way to console him would just be with honesty. I'm not going to tell you exactly what I texted with him about, but look, truthfulness is really important to me. It really, really is, and it gets me in trouble at times to be honest with you. It gets me in trouble with competitors because sometimes when I really like somebody, I just give them too much (information). I give them everything. I'll just spill everything to them. It's like this is what I feel, this is what I think, and if you need to use that, then use it.”

Q: And they beat you because you give them trade secrets?

Newgarden: “Sometimes, I feel like it's happened, but you know, it's just a fault. I don't want to consider it a fault, but I think in professional sports, it could be a fault. But look, I care about Pato. He's amazing. We need him. I mean this sport needs Pato. Not just because of his talent on track, but because of who he is. He's a superstar. We're lucky to have Pato O’Ward. He doesn't need a bigger head than he has. I would tell him that as a bigger brother. But he is a superstar, and I just told him, look, and I said this last night, he deserved to win the race, too.
"He didn't win the race, but he deserved to win the race, too. And he's got to know that. It didn't work out. It fell our way. It didn't fall his way. But he deserved to win, too, and he drove me like a champion, and it worked because of that, so it's not going to ease it, but at least he knows that's the reality of what happened. It's not ‘Hey, you lost. Screw you.’ That’s one way to play it with your competitors. But it's ‘Look we won, and it fell our way.’

“But the reality is he could have won, too, and he would have deserved to win if he did. So it doesn't ease (the sting), but it takes the reality of it and at least gives that a little bit of peace.”

Q: Does a small part of you feel a little empathy or sympathy or bad for him in any way?

Newgarden: “Of course. Oh my gosh, yeah. As much as you know, I'm not going to trade this for anything, but yeah, I don't know how you couldn't feel empathy for him. I mean, I know what he's going through. Maybe not to this specific example and level, but I know how much it's going to hurt him.”

Q: And you just said IndyCar needs him, The crowd reaction — obviously it was big for you going in the stands, they love that — but when he took the lead on Lap 199 the place kind of exploded.

Newgarden: “Yeah, I believe it. He's by far the fan favorite. He's got he's got to have 10 times as many fans as I do. And a hundred times as many fans, maybe a thousand times as many fans, in Mexico. So he's a global superstar in a lot of ways, and it’s a good guy to be battling. I like to race with the titans. I feel like I do. I feel like I've been racing with the titans for a little while now. I think about my teammate Will Power that came up to the podium. I told him, ‘Look, you're a legend. Thank you for saying hi to me.’ Like I care about him, and he's a legend of the sport and I consider him a titan. And I know Pato's young, and he's got a lot to do, but he's a titan of the sport too right now.”

Q: With that titan factor, maybe it took you so long to win this race because you were waiting for it to reach its most epic peak. There were 52 lead changes last year, and now 49 lead changes in 2024, the fourth-most in Indy 500 history. A record 16 leaders. It’s the second consecutive year for a last-lap pass for the victory, and you were on the winning end of both. How do you put all that in perspective? It took you 12 years to win this race, and now you’ve won two of the most memorable finishes in a century.

Newgarden: “I would like to think I've waited for my wife and my son to be here to experience it. That’s a beautiful way to look at it. I don't know that there's truth to that because I've been trying to win this race forever. Ever since I started here it's not like I haven't been giving my all to win it, but it is true that it's never been more difficult to win the race. It's always been the hardest race to win. It doesn't matter if you should win the race, or you're the best driver on the day, or you have the best car, you have the best team. It doesn't matter. It doesn't mean you're going to win the race. There's a lot of examples of people that probably should have won it that never win it.
“And it's never been harder today to win the race. You used to be able to build cars 30, 40 years ago that were just lights out better. And you go, ‘OK, let's manage. Let's figure out how to get the reliability factor and if you build the right car, we're going to win this race. Just get it right.’ Anyone can win this dang race now. It's true. Marcus Ericsson starting nearly last, and he's just as good as anybody to win this thing. He gets taken out the first lap of the race. So you're looking at a field of 33. where realistically, probably 75 or 80 percent can win the race. It's so tough to win it now. So it's cool when you get it right.”

Q: So it's that much more gratifying?

Newgarden: “I don't know how it couldn't be. You ask other people like Will Power, and he knows how it is, too. It’s what's so special about IndyCar right now. It's like it's genuinely in a position where it is the hardest championship in the world to find success. It is the hardest. People look at what Alex Palou did last year, which was a tremendous feat, winning five races out of 17 is considered just unbelievably unrealistic. No one can do that. And that speaks to the difficulty of the series. You're in a different stratosphere than the entire grid. So it's a crazy time to be in the sport. That's why I think you see so many people sitting in the back row going like, ‘Why does no one care about IndyCar?’ They should. I still believe it's the greatest racing we have on the planet. It doesn't mean we have a great race every weekend. You're not going to get that in motorsports. But 80 percent of the time, I think it's the best show that people can watch.”

 Q: It was definitely the greatest race yesterday on The Greatest Day in Motorsports for the second year in a row.

Newgarden: “You can't make a better Indy 500 than you got (Sunday). I'm not saying this just because we were in it, but living it and being a part of it, I don't know how you can make it more exciting. That was a crazy duel to finish this thing. It was strategy. It was positioning. It was like 70 (laps) to go, it just started kicking off and it was like, ‘All right, who's going? Who's waiting? Who's saving fuel? When are you jumping? When are you not? OK, where do you want to be?’ All right, now it's 30 laps to go, the track's cooling, everyone's fast. I mean, it was nuts. Like it was very, very tough to get that right. And there was only a couple of people that were really positioned, and it was just cool.”

Q: You mentioned earlier about being truthful with drivers, and I know that your truth is very important to you. Ashley was talking to Bruce Martin out there on the Yard of Bricks earlier, while you were taking photos, and she said you might be a little bit nervous after the push to pass scandal about how fans would react to you. She said, “He has the most integrity I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’m biased. I know that that killed him. That people saw him in a different light, and he couldn’t convince people of his truth, but he was always really focused on just moving forward.

And you spoke about your truth at Barber your truth. It’s a two-part question: Has the reaction been heartwarming from the Indy crowd and were you worried the people might react differently? Or as you told Marty Snider is that you don’t care about what people say anymore. Have you reached a point where your truth is just there, and that's enough?

Newgarden: “I think I've had to get to a point where no one asked for this deal. No one wanted this, and no one asked for it, but we were given the opportunity to deal with it. And we're all humans. I don't know how you don't react to it in a tough way. For me, it was a very difficult thing to have happen, especially when you know the reality of the situation. The perception on this thing was so far removed from the reality, and it was unfortunately stacked in a way that could not take people away from the perception. You just couldn't remove yourself from it the way that it was put together, and you just had to sit in it. You couldn't remove yourself from it, and it's just so troubling. It was so, so troubling for me, to wrestle with, but I've just had to find comfort in the fact that I'm not trying to put on a black hat. I'm not. But if people see me with a black hat, then I can't change that. I cannot change if they see me with a black hat. And it's none of my business how they feel about me. It's just none of my business. And I can't concern myself with it anymore.


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“I will say it was really nice to be here in Indianapolis. Of course, I'm sure there's people that hate me, but I think 90, 95 percent of this crowd is just a supportive, involved community that loves the race, and they just want to see a good show, and they're here to support the teams and everybody and I felt that more overwhelmingly than anything else.”

Q: You’re in a contract year at Team Penske. Where are you on the future and will we get news soon?

Newgarden (smiling): “You know where I'm at on that. I will maintain my same position. I don't publicly speak on contracts. And I've been so fortunate. If you're going to ask me, ‘Oh, do you like being with Team Penske?’ Because I'm not trying to evade anybody. It's just that is my answer, that's my stance on it. But I've had tremendous opportunity with this team. I love this team. It's a great team. And I couldn't have imagined a better opportunity in my career.

Q: After St. Pete and the disqualification, you were 11th in the championship standings, but now you're seventh in the points. Do you feel like you guys could come back? Could you win a third championship after taking a zero in the season opener?

Newgarden: “Of course. Why not? It's so early. What are we, 60 points out or something now? It's not where we want to be. It's not a preferred position, but we're by no means out of this championship. We need to clean some stuff up. I think our street course program is excellent. I mean, we already got two great examples of that, right? With St. Petersburg and Long Beach. We're going there next (in Detroit). I think the road courses are still the question mark for me specifically and the 2 car. We're trying to get that cured and fixed, and I think we should have had better results at Barber and the GP here. I don't think we should have won the races, but I think we should have had better results. That’s probably the lowest-hanging fruit for ‘OK, where do we need to be better,’ and I think on the ovals we can still excel. I really believe that we've been so good on the ovals, and we just need to make sure we don't drop performance. So if we can get all those things right, then why can we not be in this championship fight? Of course, we can be.”


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