For the second time in three years, Josef Newgarden is an NTT IndyCar Series champion. A remarkably consistent season for the Team Penske driver, which included four victories and 12 top fives, saw him outlast teammate Simon Pagenaud and Andretti Autosport rival Alexander Rossi for the championship despite an eighth place finish in Sunday’s season finale from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
2019 was one of the most exciting and competitive IndyCar seasons in recent memory, thanks in part to a dramatic opening stretch to the season that saw five different winners in the first five races. Colton Herta became the youngest winner in series history in the first-ever IndyCar race from Circuit of the Americas, while Pagenaud likely saved his job at Team Penske from Rossi by sweeping the IndyCar Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 to become the first repeat winner of the year.
But the championship battle, for the most part, came down to Newgarden and Rossi throughout the year. The top two American drivers in the series kept it close for much of the season, with Rossi keeping sustained pressure on throughout the year but Newgarden usually just ahead of him. There were plenty of opportunities to shift the balance of power—Newgarden’s 19th place finish in the second Detroit race and last-lap DNF at Mid-Ohio come to mind—but Rossi only finished fifth in both races, leaving valuable points on the table.
In fact, most of the series’ top drivers missed an opportunity or two in the final stretch of the season. Newgarden’s win at Iowa in July was actually his final podium of the season, while finishes of 18th and 13th at Pocono and Gateway for Rossi enabled Pagenaud to eventually claim second in the standings. Defending series champion Scott Dixon’s three podiums in the final five races were offset by two finishes of 16th or worse, and even Will Power’s hot streak of two wins and three podiums to end the year included a DNF at Gateway.
But that kind of inconsistency among talented veterans does two things: it keeps the title chase interesting, and it allows young drivers to shine. Herta’s win at Laguna Seca enabled him to join his father Bryan as winners at the track, but it still left him five points short of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist for top rookie honors. While Herta and Santino Ferrucci were attracting most of the headlines, the Swede earned two podiums in the final five races and clawed through the field to finish fifth at Laguna Seca despite a major qualifying penalty.
Oh, by the way, did we mention that Fernando Alonso and McLaren failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500? With everything else going on, the story that rocked the motorsport world in May amounted to little more than a footnote on the season as a whole.
Now it’s time to regroup for 2020, a season that should be even more interesting than this one. Herta’s Harding Steinbrenner Racing squad will merge into Andretti Autosport, while McLaren will partner with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing as it switches to Chevrolet (although whether or not James Hinchcliffe remains with the team remains to be seen, due to Hinch’s longtime Honda deal and some other behind-the-scenes drama). Pocono is off the schedule in favor of a return to Richmond Raceway, but otherwise the series looks to retain most of its 2019 calendar, and most of its top driver-team pairings, too.
For now, though, it’s Newgarden on top—and it’ll be that way at least until next March in St. Petersburg. But if he wins that race, as he did this year, the top of the points tables might not be changing anytime soon.