Sports Journalism Blog

By Seth Hine

Sports Capital Journalism Program

After taking the checkered flag of the 107th Indianapolis 500, Josef Newgarden had one goal in mind: join the crowd and celebrate his victory with the people that make the event so special.

Moments after one of the most memorable finishes in the history of the event, a one-lap sprint that produced the fourth-closest finish and a controversial ending marked by the last of a record three red flags, Newgarden didn’t go into the fence. He slipped through it.

Newgarden slid through an open spot in the catch fence and was immediately swarmed by hundreds of fans who knew what his first Indianapolis 500 victory meant to him. “I planned to go higher in the stands,” he said, “but it quickly got a little out of control, and I thought, maybe the best thing is for me to leave again.” It felt as though Newgarden wished he could have celebrated his victory with every single one of the estimated 300,000 fans there to watch his moment in racing history.

The margin of victory of .0974 second ahead of defending champion Marcus Ericsson, extended Team Penske’s record to 19 Indianapolis victories. Newgarden’s victory, in his 12th start, equaled previous winners Sam Hanks (in 1957) and Tony Kanaan (2013) for the most starts before a first-place finish.

Not many racing drivers get the chance to drive at the Indianapolis 500, and even fewer are skilled and fortunate enough to win it. To drive into the winner’s circle and drink that victory milk is a feat every IndyCar driver dreams of and works their entire career towards achieving. This results in a lot of stress, sleepless nights in May, and heartbreak when the team’s plan does not come together. Newgarden knew this stress and pain all too well, in his first 11 attempts to win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway he was never quite able to touch the top step of the podium. However, at the 2023 Indianapolis 500 a weight was lifted off Newgarden’s shoulders and a lifelong dream was realized.

“To win this race is indescribable,” he said. “I think being at this event is indescribable. Someone has to come and see it and be a part of it to understand what it is really all about, and I’ve always wanted the honor to win this race because I wanted to go in the crowd if it was ever possible because I know what the energy is like here in Indianapolis.”

Newgarden realized his dream this year, not only of winning but also of running into the crowd after his win. “I knew exactly where the gap was,” he said. “I’d been over there many, many years. I’ve seen that photo hole spot, and really, it’s just like an access point that you can crawl under. It looks like it’s closed but there’s a way to get through. I knew exactly where I was going at the end of this race.”

Newgarden seemed to have little to compare the accomplishment of winning the Indianapolis 500 to. He said that winning the race was more relieving, but his past two championship wins were more difficult to achieve. He described how important it is for an IndyCar driver to win the Indianapolis 500. “I don’t necessarily subscribe to the fact that if you don’t win the 500 your career is a failure,” he said, “but I think a lot of people really view this race and this championship with that lens, that the 500 stands alone, and that if you’re not able to capture one, then the career really is a failure in a lot of ways.”

Newgarden led for just five laps, the third fewest among champions, behind Dan Wheldon, who led for one lap in 2011, and Joe Dawson, who led for two in 1912.

For a few moments, it appeared as though Ericsson would become the winner as the result of a yellow flag. There had never been more than one competition-related red flag in the 106 previous races. But after an accident involving rookie Benjamin Pedersen and Graham Rahal on Lap 196, with Ericsson in first, the race was stopped for a third time until the restart on Lap 199 set up a one-lap sprint to the finish. Newgarden passed Ericsson on the outside just before entering Turn 3.

Ericsson became the ninth defending champion to finish in second place the following year. Santino Ferrucci finished third, the best for a driver from A.J. Foyt Racing since Eliseo Salazar finished third in 2000.

Aside from a relief and a sense of accomplishment for Newgarden, this win also meant a lot to Team Penske, whose total of 19 Indianapolis 500 wins is more than the next three highest winning teams combined. Team owner Roger Penske has said many times that he wants to eclipse 20 Indianapolis 500 wins in his ownership. Penske was proud of what Newgarden had accomplished saying, “Today, all day long, he worked his way up there.” Newgarden climbed from a starting position of 17th and is now only the third driver to win from that position.

When asked about helping Penske get closer to his 20-win goal, Newgarden responded, “I put my hand on his [Penske’s] shoulder in Victory Lane and said, ‘Now we’ve got to get 20.’ He was the first one to go, ‘Absolutely.’ He didn’t even take a breath. He was ahead of me in the thought process.”