Is Josef Newgarden the IndyCar Equivalent of Kevin Durant?

Photo Credit: USA Today (Josef Newgarden, left), (Kevin Durant, right)

All spring and summer long, the main NBA headlines primarily revolved around two things: the 2016 NBA Finals, and which team former Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant was going to end up signing with in the NBA free agency period.

Towards the end of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the main IndyCar headlines also primarily revolved around two things: the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, and which team the young rising star American Josef Newgarden would end up agreeing to drive for in 2017.

Kevin Durant, 27, who is currently 3rd on the all-time NBA points per game , ended up leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, a franchise which he had been with since the team became a team back in 2008 after being drafted by the team’s predecessor, the Seattle SuperSonics, in the 2007 NBA Draft. For 9 consecutive seasons, Durant helped build up that franchise into a contender for the NBA championship title, and he even led the team to the NBA Finals in 2012.

Then, Durant chose to sign a 2-year, $54 million deal with the Golden State Warriors in free agency this past offseason just one season after the Warriors won their first NBA championship since 1975, and just months after they completed an NBA regular season with an all-time record of 73 victories. Durant signed with a Warriors team that was already stacked from top to bottom with stars such as point guard Stephen Curry, shooting guard Klay Thompson, and power forward Draymond Green, and has been in the consideration for a while now about potentially being the greatest NBA team of all time. Durant signing with Golden State essentially turns the Warriors into a “super team”.

Because of this move, Durant has been considered “weak” and a “traitor” for seemingly taking the easy way out to try to finally win his first NBA championship with a team that has been battle-tested and has proven to be championship-ready over the past 2 seasons instead of sticking with the team that he had been with for 9 seasons and continuously came up short playing for.

Josef Newgarden, 25, meanwhile, has competed in the Verizon IndyCar Series for 5 seasons after winning the Indy Lights championship in 2011. He drove for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing from the 2012 season through the 2014 season, CFH Racing in the 2015 season, and Ed Carpenter Racing in the 2016 season, although he never technically switched teams since that team just had a few ownership changes over the years. He finished in a career high 3rd place in this year’s Indianapolis 500 mile race and a career high 4th place in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings. Like Durant after the NBA season, Newgarden was all set to be a free agent at the end of the IndyCar season.

Newgarden then chose to drive for Team Penske, owned by the well-known American entrepreneur Roger Penske. Penske has been the team owner of 2 of the past 3 IndyCar Series champions, including Simon Pagenaud, who just won the title in dominant fashion last Sunday at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California. Penske has also been the team owner of 14 IndyCar champions dating back to 1977 and 16 Indianapolis 500 mile race winners dating back to 1972. It is well-known across the IndyCar paddock and community that Team Penske provides its drivers with the top engineers and pit crew to work with when driving there. Newgarden will also get to team up with some of the greatest IndyCar drivers of this generation: Helio Castroneves, a 3-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Will Power, the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, and Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion who won this season’s championship by the largest points margin in IndyCar history.

So is it logical to compare Newgarden to Durant in that both left familiar situations and teams that they had been on to join superior teams?

In basketball, the game is won on the court, and each player on every team needs to contribute their best for the team to be successful. However, if a player does happen to underperform, they still have their teammates to help lead the team to victory. All hope is not lost for a team if a single player on that team underperforms.

In IndyCar racing, that is not the case. Sure, the various engineers and pit crew members help form a team that includes the driver. The driver is not the only one doing work to try to win races. But if the driver underperforms, there is not much the pit crew can do to change the outcome of the race in that driver’s favor.

For example, let’s say Kevin Durant gets dehydrated. He needs to take an extra 5 minute break on the sideline that he does not usually take. When he feels better, he will reenter the game having played 5 less minutes that the other players, but he will pick up right where the team left off. In IndyCar racing, however, let’s say Josef Newgarden spins out and hits a barrier, and his car sustains minor damage that will take some time to fix. He must come into the pits and get it fixed. If he spends 5 laps in the pits before resuming the race, he will still be 5 laps down. He does not pick up where his teammates (who are in totally separate cars on the track) left off when he spun out. His race is essentially over. But Durant’s team can still win their game.

Are you seeing what I am getting at? Missing 5 minutes of an NBA game is a lot different from missing 5 laps of an IndyCar race. Despite choosing to drive for a really strong team, Newgarden still needs to perform at an extremely high level to help bring his team a championship, while Kevin Durant can actually afford to scale way back on his statistics (see HERE in the part where I compare what his statistics would have been this past season with the Warriors had he been playing small forward instead of Harrison Barnes) and still be a part of a team that will most likely win the 2017 NBA championship .

So, now to officially answer my question: Is it logical to compare Josef Newgarden to Kevin Durant in that both left familiar situations and teams that they had been with for many years to join superior teams? Not at all. It is totally unfair to call Josef Newgarden “weak” or a “traitor” for moving to Team Penske in free agency during this IndyCar offseason like many people have called Kevin Durant for signing with the Golden State Warriors during this NBA Offseason for the many reasons I have described above, and I think that everyone can agree on that.

*I personally actually do not think Durant is a traitor, and to back it up, I often use the fact that he chose to sign with the Golden State Warriors on Independence Day, July 4th, 2016, the date that marked the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Whether he did it intentionally or not, Durant still showed the world that he can use his freedom and pick whichever team he wanted to sign with, and he had every right to pick Golden State, so in my eyes, he is not a traitor, but a man who sought to make the best possible decision he could, much like Newgarden did. Based on that, technically Newgarden and Durant are very much alike in that neither one did anything wrong, but for the sake of this article and for the sake of the fact that most people think that Durant is a traitor, I would say that it is not fair to put Newgarden in Durant’s category as being a “traitor” and therefore Josef Newgarden is not the IndyCar equivalent of Kevin Durant.

-Asher Fair