Based on the recent championship cadence for two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES titlewinner Josef Newgarden and the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet team, the 2021 season could have resulted in the group’s third series crown. After capturing the INDYCAR Championship in both 2017 and 2019, Newgarden and his team entered this season believing that history could repeat itself and the No. 2 crew would once again celebrate an every-other-year title run. Newgarden and the Hitachi Chevrolet team gave it a valiant effort but they ultimately finished second in the championship pursuit. Still, it was a successful season for Newgarden and the No. 2 team as the Team Penske ace won multiple races and became the winningest active American driver in the series.
It would be easy to point to the season-opening race at Barber Motorsports Park as the main culprit for breaking the odd-year championship rhythm for Newgarden. After all, the No. 2 Chevy did not complete a single lap of competition as Newgarden triggered a multi-car incident on the season’s opening lap of action. The accident was an anomaly, to be sure, but it put the team a lap down to the other title contenders. The Hitachi team and Newgarden were up to the task and they welcomed the challenge of fighting back.
Over the next four races, Newgarden finished no lower than sixth with a pair of runner-up results at St. Petersburg and the second race of the Texas Motor Speedway doubleheader. Despite not recording a win during that stretch, Newgarden worked his way from the 23rd spot in the championship standings to third as the team ramped up its preparations for the Indianapolis 500.
A 12th-place finish in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” represented a solid finish for Newgarden and team, but the double points awarded at Indianapolis resulted in a drop from third to sixth in the standings. It was the next race weekend – the Chevy Dual in Detroit at Belle Isle Park – where Newgarden’s season began to turn around. After winning the pole position for the second race, Newgarden had the look of a race winner before Pato O’Ward got by him on the final lap, thanks to fresher Firestone tires.
Two more pole positions followed at Road America and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as the No. 2 team clearly began clicking at the right time, despite another heartbreaking result at Road America after a dominant performance was derailed by a gearbox issue. The Mid-Ohio race, though, was a pure Newgarden-Tim Cindric (race strategist) event from start to finish with a dominant performance that saw Newgarden lead 75 of 80 laps to win from the pole.
While Newgarden and the No. 2 team did not finish outside the top 10 in any of the remaining six races, qualifying would prove to be the team’s Achilles heel with starting positions of 12th or lower in four of those races. Having to battle back from the middle of the pack hampered the team’s efforts to secure more wins, despite having enough pace to do so.
The No. 2 Chevy team posted their second victory of the season with a strong run on the World Wide Technology Raceway oval just outside of St. Louis. After starting third and leading a race-high 138 laps, Newgarden scored his third career Gateway victory.
Newgarden entered the 2021 season finale at Long Beach as one of three drivers with a mathematical shot to win the championship, an effort that was aided by the team’s series-leading fourth pole position of the year.
In the end, a second-place finish at Long Beach was not enough for Newgarden and his team to secure their third INDYCAR SERIES title, but it did elevate Newgarden to second in the standings for his second-consecutive runner-up championship finish. Additionally, the No. 2 team won the NTT P1 Award for the most pole positions on the year, and the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the fastest overall time on pit road.
“It was a great year for the No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet team,” stated Newgarden. “Obviously, if you don’t finish as the champion you feel like you could have done more. I certainly got us off behind the 8-ball with the incident at Barber and the gearbox issue at Road America was a dagger to our hopes as well. This series is so tough that you have to really maximize each race weekend, and for the most part we did that. What a time to be in the INDYCAR SERIES, though. Super tough, super competitive and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”