LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — In the third race of his IndyCar career, Josef Newgarden found himself starting on the front row alongside a champion at one of the series' storied events. The rookie was determined that day to show he wouldn't back down from Dario Franchitti on the streets of Long Beach.
So Newgarden tried to snatch the lead away from the four-time series champion as they hurtled into the first turn at the start of the 2012 race.
Franchitti's answer? He wrecked the kid.
Newgarden didn't make a single lap and Franchitti taught him a valuable lesson that has furthered Newgarden's career.
"It was my inexperience and not knowing that was a bad decision," Newgarden said. "The more you drive, the more you get to learn your competition, the more you know what to do and what not to do around certain people. Obviously, that was a bad decision against Dario. He obviously didn't look at it very well, and you saw what happened.
"If I learned anything, it's that, know your competition."
Newgarden is no longer that 21-year-old newcomer fighting his way every race while driving for Sarah Fisher's tiny team. He's now the IndyCar champion, driving for Roger Penske, and goes into Sunday's race at Long Beach as the points leader.
He took over the top of the standings following last Saturday night's race in Phoenix, where he used new tires to catch leader Robert Wickens on the final restart and then laid in wait until he could pounce on Wickens for the win.
It was a perfect example of on-track maturation.
"I was very patient with Robert, I didn't force it. Like, I could have (passed him) the first time," Newgarden said. "I think you kind of learn that over years in this sport that you don't have to rush everything. You get better knowing what to do when and how. There are times to force stuff and there are times to take it easy, and I feel like I've gotten better with that.
"The more years you run, the more you understand when to go and when not to go, and when I went on Robert, it was time to go. You learn that through experience."
Which means Newgarden is finally poised to grab a big finish at this historic event. In six previous starts, Newgarden has crashed out of the race twice — he was in a bizarre 2014 multi-car crash when contact from Ryan Hunter-Reay knocked the top contenders out of the event — and didn't earn his first podium finish until last year when as a Penske driver.
His troubles at Long Beach predate IndyCar, too. Newgarden was leading the 2011 Indy Lights race until he crashed in Turn 8 with two laps remaining.
"I always felt like I could have a good race here, it's just never materialized," Newgarden said. "I don't know if it owes me, but I feel like I'm able to get something down here at some point."
His weekend has not been trouble free. He wasn't great in opening practice and was late to IndyCar's mandatory driver weigh-in and was penalized 10 minutes in another practice session. But Newgarden's confidence is stellar and now in his second season with Team Penske he's comfortable in his environment.
Newgarden relocated from Indianapolis to Charlotte, North Carolina, when he was hired by Penske and now a championship and a year after the move, he's proven to be of Penske material.
"It's crazy to me, we show up, we've got the black pants, white shirt — I grew up seeing those people and to be a part of that now? I never thought Roger would hire me. I never thought that would happen," Newgarden said. "So it's always weird when I look down at my uniform and see I'm part of the group. You feel good being part of it and it's fun to be part of Team Penske and the atmosphere and system. I feel a lot of pride to be part of it, and that they trust me, and they trust me inside in the car and it makes me feel really good about what I'm doing."
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