Josef Newgarden won his second championship in three years with a smooth drive in the IndyCar season finale, where he played it safe and watched rookie Colton Herta dominate the road course at Laguna Seca.
Newgarden needed only to finish fourth or better to give Roger Penske his 16th IndyCar title and his drive clearly indicated he wouldn’t get aggressive and risk throwing it away. The American from Tennessee finished eighth Sunday — good enough to beat teammate Simon Pagenaud by 25 points in the championship race.
He jumped into the arms of his waiting crew and broke down in tears in a rare display of emotion.
“I am so happy, I was crying that entire last lap,” Newgarden said. “This has been my dream since I was a kid.”
Newgarden then needed a moment to compose himself.
The championship gave Team Penske a season sweep of the crown jewels of IndyCar; Pagenaud won the Indianapolis 500 in May for Penske’s record 18th victory.
Pagenaud was frantically chasing Scott Dixon and Penske teammate Will Power in the closing laps to get a shot at Herta — Pagenaud’s only real chance at winning the title — but settled for fourth in what will still go down as a career-defining season. His sweep of all the events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May earned him a contract extension that Penske confirmed before the race has been completed.
Newgarden went into the race, which was worth double points, trying to hold off Alexander Rossi, Pagenaud and Scott Dixon for the title. But he controlled his own destiny and knew he’d need an awful race and one of his challengers would likely need to win to prevent him from wrapping up the title.
None could ever get close enough to Herta, who led 83 of 90 laps, to make an attempt.
The 19-year-old rookie upstaged the championship race the entire weekend by continuously leading the speed charts, then won the pole Saturday an hour after Andretti Autosport said it was pulling Herta inside its organization next season.
“We were really quick,” said Herta. “It was so cool to be here, everything just went so smooth.”
Herta added he will be chasing the IndyCar championship next season when he drives for Andretti.
Herta was barely challenged for the race win, and he joins his father, Bryan, as winners at the challenging 2.258-mile course. Bryan Herta was a two-time winner at Laguna Seca, and his son earlier this season became the youngest winner in IndyCar history with a victory in Texas just days before his 19th birthday.
He bookended his breakthrough season with the victory, but couldn’t snake the rookie of the year title away from Felix Rosenqvist. The Swede matched Herta in speed all weekend but a penalty in qualifying forced Rosenqvist to a 14th-place starting position in a race he believed could be his first career IndyCar victory.
Rosenqvist angrily accused IndyCar of penalizing him because it wanted Herta to claim top rookie honors, but had calmed down a little after a Sunday morning meeting with league officials. Rosenqvist said IndyCar admitted to him the penalty was “harsh” but correct, and he said he was “the right amount of angry” to prove a point Sunday. He had the drive of the day, finishing fifth— just enough to prevent Herta from collecting all the honors.
The Herta victory, strong rookie class, Newgarden title and a championship race that went down to the finale for the 14th consecutive year had IndyCar officials soaring about a series on a slow rebuild.
And the finale showed that Team Penske is still the strongest in IndyCar. The Newgarden title is the fourth for Penske in the last six seasons and came on the day Power was second, Pagenaud fourth and Newgarden the champion.
Dixon finished third to complete the podium, while Rossi was sixth.
Rossi was beat out of the pits on his first stop by Newgarden, then quickly had his hands full with Pagenaud. He and Pagenaud made contact and Rossi’s car dipped into the dirt, but he recovered.
He later chased down Newgarden, but Newgarden didn’t put up a fight as he let Rossi by in a tactical move of racing safe and steady while allowing the challengers to take all the risks.