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Newgarden: The 2010s Version of Al Unser Jr.?

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Josef Newgarden has officially entered territory that not many Team Penske Verizon IndyCar Series drivers of the past have reached.

Following his victory in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, his third of the season, he is threatening to become the first pilot to win a series championship in his debut year with the Captain, since the legendary Al Unser, Jr. did so in 1994.

“I don’t know what we were going to get this year,” said Newgarden to the IndyCar Radio Network after the race. “It makes me emotional thinking about it, it’s awesome getting to drive for this team, and three wins is amazing.”

With the Tennessee-native now holding the points lead for the first time in his career, it is not too early to look at the comparisons between two American pilots who eventually joined IndyCar’s super team after several years of adversity, triumph, and struggle.

The second-generation member of the Unser family had to wait until his 12th year on the circuit to earn a ride for Penske. Before that, the New Mexico veteran won 19 races, the 1990 CART Series championship, and the 1992 Indianapolis 500 before the phone call was made to Albuquerque.

For Newgarden, the trials and tribulations were just as brutal. Although he has five years of IndyCar experience under his belt, his career nearly came to a halt following the removal of the financial backing from former driver Sarah Fisher and her business partner Wink Hartman after the 2015 campaign, when the Chevrolet chauffeur collected his first two event wins. Picked up by Ed Carpenter Racing for 2016, the 2011 Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion finished a career-high fourth on the final table and quickly became the focus of Silly Season, as several top squads sought out new drivers.

Looking for a winning hand to replace two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya on his full-time roster, Roger Penske snapped up Newgarden soon after 2016 concluded and the rest is history.

If indeed Josef Newgarden can claim the series title after IndyCar’s final four rounds, a further look at comparing the achievements from now to 1994, will be tough. Although Little Al’s eight-win in 16 races performance in his inaugural with the Captain was outstanding, one could say Newgarden’s task to match it is a bit tougher.

For instance, in 1994, Penske was still running his own cars in CART, which were the dominant force that year, with the three-car unit of Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Paul Tracy winning all but four races. The record also includes a performance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that was aided by a Mercedes-Benz engine that blew the competition into the weeds. While Unser, Jr.’s career outputs have earned him a place in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, was the 1994 run better when compared to what Newgarden has amassed in 2017?

Unlike 23 years ago, the car that Newgarden drives is being utilized by every other driver on the IndyCar circuit. So while Little Al had an edge at the Brickyard, the Tennessean was at a disadvantage at this year’s Indy 500 and most of the other oval tracks, running a Chevrolet V-6 motor that appeared to be a step behind the rival Honda power plant.

Of course, not everyone will agree 100 percent either way, but one thing is clear. At just 26 years of age, Roger Penske has a driver who should be a race-winning threat for at least the next decade of North American open-wheel racing, if not longer. If that’s the case, not only the marks of Al Unser, Jr. will be comparable, but also the marks set by the other legends to pilot a Penske entry, the Rick Mears, Unsers, Fittipaldis, etcetera.

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Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad. A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory. Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.