Monday, April 22, 2024

Musings From the Weekend: Josef Newgarden - Money or Fame?

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

Formula One had its first sprint weekend of the season, and it went the way you expected. Shanghai re-profiled its final corner and no one knew about it until everyone got there. It wasn't the only corner re-profiled this weekend. A missing scoring pylon had many up-in-arms in Talladega. There is no longer a tie in Supercross, but it remains close with three races remaining. Imola provided a great event for the FIA World Endurance Championship. Scott Dixon won the Grand Prix of Long Beach, but it is Josef Newgarden who has been on my mind.

Josef Newgarden - Money or Fame?
It was Newgarden's 200th start this weekend at Long Beach. At one time, 200 starts was a sign of the end of an IndyCar career. If you weren't on the 18th green, you were approaching it. A driver was definitely on the back nine. 

For Newgarden, this is the halfway point. Thirty-three years old, Newgarden has 200 more starts in his future if he wants them. An average of 17 starts per season through his 45th year of life would add another 204 races to Newgarden's career total. Even then, he might not be done. But this isn't only a symbolic halfway point to the American's career. It is a pivotal moment before he enters the second half of his career.

In the final year of his contract at Team Penske, Newgarden finds himself about to hit the open market when salaries have increased around him. He already has 30 victories and two championships. The only drivers with more victories are in their 40s (Scott Dixon and Will Power). Besides the Antipodes, the only other multi-time champion in the series is the contractually complicated Álex Palou. Newgarden's value might never be higher than this moment, but does he want something Penske cannot give him?

Money far from lacks at Team Penske, but Penske hasn't felt the economic pressure from the driver market. Penske picks you rather than the driver picks Penske. It doesn't matter who is in the cars. They all win. Six of the 13 drivers with at least 30 career victories spent a chunk of their careers at Penske. Then throw in Rick Mears with 29 career victories, who effectively spent his entire career there. If a driver wants to win, and Penske calls, it would be wise to say yes.

With that place in IndyCar, Penske hasn't had to drive up driver wages, especially in the last 20 years as IndyCar shrunk in terms of interest and financial profile. Drivers would still be comfortable, but signing with Penske comes with an unspoken success tax. You might not earn the most, but you will win more times than not, and that is what the people remember. 

Newgarden is on the verge of becoming one of the most decorated drivers in IndyCar history. If he has 30 victories in 200 starts, what do you think he will do in the next 200 starts? Another 30 victories would place him in a club only A.J. Foyt currently occupies. Stick around for 225 to 240 starts could see Newgarden hit the lofty #68. However, would he remain on that trajectory changing his scenery? 

Stick with Team Penske and Newgarden has a shot. Leave and it becomes exponentially more difficult. A pay day elsewhere could come with the price of losing a place in history. Forty victories might become out of reach. It would make 50 unobtainable. 

For all that Arrow McLaren is paying its drivers, it is not the dominant force in IndyCar. Patricio O'Ward hasn't won since July 2022. Andretti Global is paying all of its drivers handsomely, but it hasn't won a drivers' championship since 2012. Colton Herta is approaching two years since his most recent victory. O'Ward and Herta are believed to be the highest paid two drivers on the grid. 

Chip Ganassi Racing is the only team matching Penske's output. Ganassi doesn't dig as deep in his pockets either as is evident with two rookies and a sophomore filling 60% of his five car team, and one of those drivers is Kyffin Simpson. 

Most of the grid cannot afford Newgarden. Most places would be a step back. It doesn't mean Newgarden will not have suitors. It also doesn't mean Newgarden isn't looking into the future. Team Penske as we know it could change in a blink. Roger Penske is 87 years old. Though the team has competed in IndyCar for 55 years, it is very much still in phase one and it will remain in phase one as long as its namesake is around. 

Does Newgarden want to be around when phase two begins? Does a Penske-less Team Penske interest him? Is the Tennesseean's foresight as good as his driving?

Newgarden is young enough where he will get another contract cycle after this, probably even two. His luster will not vanish if he has a two- or three-year slump. Once you leave the mountaintop, there is no guarantee you ever return. In two contract's time, Newgarden could have spent seven seasons firmly in the middle, gone through a few winless seasons and only once been a championship challenge, though even in that year he was a long shot. 

Sébastien Bourdais won four consecutive championships in Champ Car, and the second act of Bourdais' career saw him relegated to carrying small teams up the order in a smattering of races but never congealing a full season challenge or accomplishing enough to catch the interest of a top team. Bourdais had 31 victories in 74 starts. He won only six times in his final 153 starts. None of those were an Indianapolis 500 victory either.

Another IndyCar team didn't sway Bourdais away, as he went to Formula One, but Sébastien Bourdais never stopped being Sébastien Bourdais though no one valued him as such. The Frenchman finished ninth in a Lotus; the skill was still there. Newgarden taking the money could take him from flying on the high road to slogging it in the gutter. 

From what we have seen since the calendar flipped to 2024, Newgarden is a driver focused on winning. He has made it known he is cutting out all the distractions from his life, from the YouTube series with Scott McLaughlin to unfollowing everyone on social media, after a disappointing 2023 season, a season where all he did was win four times including the Indianapolis 500. Everything Newgarden has said and done shows he cares about only one thing. Will he feel the same way when the largest check he has ever been presented is placed in front of him?

At his highest price, does Newgarden cash in? Or does Penske offer something money cannot buy and warrant letting it ride?

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Scott Dixon, but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Chinese Grand Prix, and Verstappen won the sprint race as well.

The #01 Cadillac Racing Cadillac of Sébastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande won the IMSA race from Long Beach. The #89 VasserSullivan Lexus of Ben Barnicoat and Parker Thompson won in GTD.

Jason Daskalos swept the GT America races at Long Beach.

Tyler Reddick won the NASCAR Cup race from Talladega. Jesse Love won the Grand National Series race, his first career victory.

The #7 Toyota of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Nyck de Vries won the 6 Hours of Imola. The #31 Team WRT BMW of Augusto Farfus, Sean Gelael and Darren Leung won in LMGT3.

Andre Heimgartner and Will Brown split the Supercars races from Taupō.

Sébastien Ogier won Rally Croatia, his 59th World Rally Championship victory.

Nicholas Spinell (race one), Álvaro Bautista (SuperPole race) and Toprak Razgatlioglu (race two) split the World Superbike races from Assen. Adrián Huertas and Glenn van Straalen split the World Supersport races.

Jett Lawrence won the Supercross race from Nashville, his sixth victory of the season. RJ Hampshire won the East-West Showdown in the 250cc class.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar keeps it up and will race at Barber Motorsports Park.
MotoGP will be at Jerez.
NASCAR goes over to Dover.
Formula E settles into Monaco.
The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters opens its season in Oschersleben.
Supercross returns to Philadelphia for the first time in 44 years.