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Newgarden becomes fan favorite at 1st Indy 500

Josef Newgarden stood outside the Indianapolis 500 rookie luncheon trading advice with Jean Alesi.

Though it seemed strange seeing the youngest driver in this year's Indianapolis 500 explaining to the oldest rookie in 500 history how to get around the Brickyard's 2.5-mile oval, Newgarden seemed at ease Tuesday.

"The faster you go, the easier this place is," the 21-year-old kid explained to the 47-year-old Alesi.

Newgarden has a way of making things sound and look easy.

From the moment Sarah Fisher's No. 67 car rolled off the truck in Indy this month, Newgarden was one of the fastest drivers. He topped the speed charts three times in the first five practices — more than anyone else all week.

While some contend Newgarden's speeds were artificially inflated by tows, he proved his numbers were real by becoming the only Honda driver to make Saturday's pole shootout. Not even the four Honda cars from Chip Ganassi's powerhouse team could do that.

Starting seventh Sunday, the inside of Row 3, makes Newgarden the highest rookie qualifier since Danica Patrick started fourth in 2005. And if he wins the race, Newgarden would become the first to win Indy's other May race, the Freedom 100, and the world-famous 500 in back-to-back years. No American rookie has won the race since Louis Meyer in 1928.

"How cool would that be?" shouted Newgarden, the first Tennessean to start the race. "My parents would be so proud. It would be a great accomplishment."

It would make him a star in Gasoline Alley, too, where's he's already developing a sort of cult following.

IndyCar fans who desperately want a young American star to revive the series have added Newgarden to the growing list of other 20-something hopefuls — Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal.

Right now, though, Newgarden is the hottest thing going. He's qualified in the top 10 three straight times and just missed finishing in the top 10 at St. Petersburg, finishing 11th in his IndyCar debut.

At Long Beach, Newgarden's bold move to pass three-time defending IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti led to a crash, and when Franchitti criticized him afterward, Newgarden refused to acquiesce.

It's not just race fans who are taking notice of the baby-faced, blonde-haired racer who abstains from alcohol. His public relations representative jokes that female fans range from tweens to cougars.

None of the attention fazes Newgarden.

"They're blinded by the speed, that's all it is," Newgarden said with a smile. "It's all smoke and mirrors."

Not really.

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing jumped at the chance to sign Newgarden after Ed Carpenter left to form his own team after last season.

Part of the reason was money. As the first Mazda Road to Indy graduate, Newgarden was given a $1 million scholarship by the series to shop his services. Fisher saw a talented, young driver, too.

Newgarden began pursuing racing seriously at age 13, and won multiple World Karting championships from 2005-2007. In 2008, he became the first American to win the International Formula Ford Festival in the Kent Class. The next year, he moved to the British Formula Ford Series, where he wound up second.

And in 2011, Newgarden emerged as the next big thing in IndyCar by winning five of the 14 Indy Lights races and finishing in the top three 10 times. He ran away with the points title and established himself as a force to be reckoned with.

"Josef's got a lot of experience on ovals and Sarah Fisher did a really good job on that car and Josef really nailed it in qualifying," said Simon Pagenaud, a former Champ Car driver who is fifth in the points as he heads into his first 500. "It's a combination of a lot of things."

This year's rookie class is one of the 500's most unusual.

There is Newgarden and Wade Cunningham, the Freedom 100's only three-time winner. There is Pagenaud and Katherine Legge, Champ Car veterans but 500 newcomers. There's Bryan Clauson, Newgarden's teammate and a USAC star, and James Jakes, who was in Indy last year but failed to qualify for the race.

Plus, there's 2002 U.S. Grand Prix winner Rubens Barrichello and Alesi, who have combined for 523 career Formula One starts.

All of them except Newgarden and Barrichello (10th) are starting in the second half of the field.

Alesi's advice to the young American is simple.

"When you're young and in a good position, you want to enjoy it, but you have to realize the race is long and not to get too excited by the first lap and the crowd," Alesi said. "I remember when I was young and made a mistake at the beginning of the race and I had to watch the rest of the race on TV. You have to remember the race is long."

It's a lesson Newgarden will heed come Sunday.

"I think that's great advice," he said. "I've heard that from other people, too, and that's what this race is all about, making it to the finish."