ICS: For Newgarden, the Green Flag Drops Now

It is suggested to Josef Newgarden that his career might go a little better, at least marketing-wise, if he dropped the European spelling of his first name. Joe Newgarden is definitely American. Or at the very least Canadian, which is good enough for most people. Lacking any sort of Canadian accent, America would be happy to claim him, just like Martin Short, Michael J. Fox and Alex Trebek. Well, mostly Alex Trebek.

Yet Newgarden’s accent hails from Tennessee, and his name is “the one my parents gave me, so that’s what I’m sticking with,” he answers. And so the name, the brand and the career must go it the hard way, with casual fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series wondering about the background of Josef Nicolai Newgarden.

Yet face time and success can cure a lot of things, including anonymity and doubt. Ryan Hunter-Reay faced it earlier in his career, and didn’t start enjoying prolonged success until hooking up with Andretti Autosport in 2010—his seventh team in eight seasons, including the one he missed, 2006. But a victory in Long Beach at a race he considers his home launched him toward a series championship in 2012 and an Indianapolis 500 victory in 2014.

Newgarden has languished in the same background, yet without the uniform changes. Driving for Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman, Newgarden has had the stability, albeit with a small one-car team, that Hunter-Reay never had. He drove three years on a shoestring, paying his dues. When Newgarden was actually running at the checkers, his finishes were progressively more respectable. With Fisher Hartman joining forces with Ed Carpenter’s team for 2015, Newgarden may have reached that point in time that RHR reached in 2010.

Just as RHR had won at Long Beach in 2010, Newgarden’s first victory in the series came on Sunday in what is essentially his home track in the Grand Prix of Alabama, a 192-mile shot down Interstate 65 from his hometown Nashville.

This victory may be the hump Newgarden finally needed to get over. The monkey is off his back, the bell has been rung, the corn has been shucked. Newgarden is now a winner. The spotlight has now been pointed in his direction. Could he be ready to be the Next Big Thing in American open wheel racing?

He finished ahead of another red, white and blue-blood, Graham Rahal. Although Rahal turned in the drive of the race to finish second—he passed cars left and right—it was Newgarden who stood atop the podium. Until Rahal or Marco Andretti win consistently, the shadow guys like Newgarden and Charlie Kimball could slot themselves behind Hunter-Reay as the top American driver.

Right now, Newgarden has a victory and momentum. If all he needed was a victory to open the floodgates, then that flood has arrived. And he could be poised for bigger things if he fully embraces it.

He is comfortable in conversation. He understands how to tell a story. He can laugh at himself. Approachable, affable, photogenic. Insiders knew he could drive a car. After three years of seasoning, all he really needs at this stage are results, validation.

With his performance at Barber Motorsports Park, that validation has arrived. More victories are sure to follow, and probably sooner than later.

For Newgarden is no regular Joe, and the green flag on his career drops now.

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