Photo Credit: San Diego Union Tribune
Looking at the title of this article, you might think “Wait, what? Simon Pagenaud just won the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.” Yes, he did, and he did so by the largest points margin in IndyCar history: 127 points over 2nd place finisher Will Power. So if Newgarden’s move to Team Penske turns out like Pagenaud’s, why should we not expect much from Newgarden next season?
Typically when a driver performs really well on a smaller team, people often draw the conclusion that they would be unstoppable on a bigger team with more resources, like Team Penske. Take Graham Rahal for instance. The past two seasons, not only has he placed top 5 in the championship standings (1 of only 3 drivers to do so along with Will Power and Helio Castroneves) driving a Honda-powered car (Drivers of Honda-powered cars won just 24 of the 32 races over the 2015 and 2016 seasons), but he has done so on a 1-car team with limited resources. The normal response to such success in Rahal’s situation is “Can you imagine what Rahal would do in a Penske car? He would dominate!”
Now let’s look at a real-life non-hypothetical scenario that actually has happened in the series with a driver switching to drive for a powerhouse team with loads of resources from a smaller team with limited resources. Newly crowned IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud drove for Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports, Schmidt Peterson Hamilton HP Motorsports, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports from the 2012 IndyCar season through the 2014 season (effectively the same team with slightly different ownership each season). He drove a Honda-powered car for those 3 seasons, and he finished in 5th, 3rd, and 5th in the IndyCar championship standings in 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively. When he went to drive for Team Penske in 2015, everyone expected him to be unstoppable, including myself. It was almost like if you didn’t have sky-high expectations of him, you hadn’t been following the series closely enough over the past 3 seasons.
However, things did not work out so well for Pagenaud in the 2015 season. He finished in a career low 11th place in the championship standings and did not win a single race all season long. A major reason this was the case is because it takes many drivers some time to adapt to and get accustomed to driving for a new team, especially a powerhouse team like Team Penske. Lots of pressure is on that driver to do well since they are expected to do so much better than they did before because they are now on a better team compared to the one they drove for previously. Last season, Pagenaud could not catch a break and ended up failing to meet the expectations of many with a championship finish of 11th place.
I think something similar will be the case for Josef Newgarden in his first season driving for Team Penske. He will be 26 years old when he first suits up to drive for his new team, and there will be more pressure on him than there ever has been before now that people’s expectations for him are super high after a couple of very impressive seasons with CFH Racing, a much smaller team with fewer resources than Team Penske. To put this in perspective, Pagenaud was 30 years old when he joined Team Penske and had more experience and better championship results than Newgarden does, and he still only managed to finish in 11th place in his first season with the team.
Now, however, Pagenaud is on top of the racing world having just won his first ever IndyCar championship, and he did it in dominant fashion. After the 2015 season was full of adjustment and becoming acclimated to Team Penske and lacked championship-caliber race results, the 2016 season was dominated by Pagenaud; he picked up where he left off driving for Sam Schmidt when he left the team to come to Team Penske. He actually performed much better driving for Team Penske than he did when he was driving for Sam Schmidt, which was many people’s expectation of him in the 2015 season.
I think Newgarden’s career will follow a path similar to Pagenaud’s. I think 2017 will be an adjustment season for Newgarden as he gets acclimated to Team Penske, and I do not see him winning more than 1 race (if that), and I also do not think he will finish as high in the championship standings as he has the past 2 seasons driving for CFH Racing (7th place in the 2015 season and 4th place in the 2016 season). I do, however, think 2018 will be Newgarden’s breakout season and potentially a season where he wins his first IndyCar championship, much like Pagenaud did in 2016 after a season full of adjustments in 2015. I think that Newgarden will pick up where he left off driving for Ed Carpenter before leaving to come to Team Penske starting in the 2018 season after his first full season driving for Team Penske. He has the potential to be a star in the Verizon IndyCar Series for many years to come, but I think that 2017 will be a year full of adjustments rather than a year full of championship-caliber results, much like Pagenaud’s season in 2015.