NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – Josef Newgarden kept his ping-pong paddle nearby in a suitcase as the hometown driver gave his latest promotional pitch on why IndyCar will be a smash hit in the city of the music.
The two-time IndyCar champion prepared for a final night of fun at his charity event before focusing on racing.
“I tried to load all my work upstream, put it aside, until (Friday), which I think is the smart thing to do,” he said.
And then the called game time.
“Teammate! Teammate! Let’s go! “
Newgarden’s spiel was cut short and he fled when fellow Penske team driver and pingpong partner Ryan Blaney walked in and gave him a big hug. Newgarden and Joey Logano gave a high-five and Austin Cindric slapped his hands and received a pat on the back.
Newgarden was clearly the winner of the most popular driver in Nashville, a fitting title for the Tennessee native who focuses on a third championship at the same time as he welcomes celebrities, racing fans and the occasional Broadway onlooker who want to know what’s going on this weekend with the open wheel cars flying over a suspension bridge 80 feet over the Cumberland River.
“It will be very embarrassing if I don’t win,” Newgarden said.
Newgarden said the remark was meant to be ironic. Kind of.
“I think there is obviously pressure that everyone wants me to be successful here and expect me to be successful here,” he said. “So I think it would only be more special if I could win.”
Newgarden won the last IndyCar race in July at Mid-Ohio before the series took a 34-day hiatus and placed fourth in the points standings before Sunday’s Grand Prix. Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward are 1-2 and Scott Dixon is third. Newgarden is 69 points behind Palou with six races to go in 2021.
“I think we absolutely have the performances to win the championship,” said Newgarden. “We don’t have a lot of room for error.”
Newgarden, 30, already won a trophy this week when he raised almost $ 140.00 and won his own charity ping-pong tournament. His enthusiasm for table tennis runs deep in his family – he bought his first racket at the age of 3 and his late grandfather, Joe Newgarden, is in the American Table Tennis Hall of Fame. Joe Newgarden also invented the Robo-Pong table tennis robot.
“Secretly, I’m hosting this event because I know I’m better than everyone at table tennis,” Newgarden said. “I just want to psychologically demoralize my competition before the weekend.
Maybe he’ll pack his paddle for Paris.
Much like a ping-pong ball, Newgarden has bounced from location to location this month, rushing to promote IndyCar’s inaugural street race in Nashville. Newgarden grew up about 25 miles north of Nashville in Hendersonville and now lives with his wife closer to town. The championships raised his profile in the region and while he wasn’t as famous as, say, country stars Miranda Lambert or Dierks Bentley (who have their names plastered on bars downtown), Newgarden has lost. the anonymity he had before winning 19 races and was hired by Roger Penske.
“Before, I wasn’t stopped outside of a race track or on a race weekend,” he said. “Now I see people in restaurants greeting me or stopping me. I’ve seen people wearing Team Penske shirts in a grocery store and they’re like, “Hey, oh my God, I didn’t know you lived here. “
It was hard to miss it this week.
But when NBC needed a star driver to promote the race’s broadcast, they turned to racing legend Mario Andretti for a chat with singer Sheryl Crow, not the likeable, photogenic city champion. native. For a series that needs all the help it can get in the ratings race, it could have turned the page of the past and spotlighted Newgarden or a handful of other IndyCar stars.
“Yes, next year I would love to be in this commercial to support my city,” Newgarden said.
Four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves spent a full season as Newgarden’s teammate on Team Penske in 2017 and watched him blossom to be one of the best in the sport.
“He’s a complete pilot. He is able to take more pole positions, able to win races. Last year they almost won, ”Castroneves said. “When you create that kind of scenario for yourself, you feel strong, you feel powerful, you start to lead the team. They’re big shoes to fill in, but he does an incredible job.
Newgarden finished second behind Dixon for the 2020 Championship and overcame devastating losses this year (he was second three times) to lead all 80 laps except seven of his victory at Mid-Ohio.
His 19 career wins are an IndyCar record for an American driver.
If he turns 20 on Sunday, keep an eye out later that night somewhere between Acme Feed & Seed and Printer’s Alley for the IndyCar star playing ping pong looking for a place to sing along.
“I love karaoke,” he said. “I’ll go with Will Power all night.”
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