IndyCar's Newgarden showing promise, maturity

Rookie Josef Newgarden bumped Justin Wilson during his IndyCar debut, then made a point to apologize afterward and assure the veteran he wasn't going to make a habit of driving that way.

The gesture was no rookie move.

"That's reassuring to me that, OK, he made a mistake and understands he made a mistake," Wilson said. "If you're learning like that, he's going to be a race-winning contender. He's learning fast.

"He's definitely got what it takes to win races in this. I don't think it'll be too long before we see him do that."

Newgarden apparently has the talent to go with those good manners. The 21-year-old Tennessean who dominated Firestone Indy Lights in his lone season has navigated the first two races of his IndyCar career without major incidents and with solid 11th- and 15th-place finishes.

The start has been far from problem-free — Newgarden had to deal with damaged front wings both times — but still was promising considering his newcomer status.

He didn't even get to take laps in the new Dallara DW12 until 16 days before the opener at St. Petersburg after Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing only landed an engine manufacturer when it signed with Honda on Feb. 24.

He still has carved a reputation as an up-and-coming young driver. Being a fresh-faced, affable American who hails directly from Indy Lights, IRL's developmental league, doesn't hurt in a sport whose biggest current stars are from other countries.

"He's a very successful All-American guy next door," said team owner Sarah Fisher, who signed Newgarden in early December.

"His brand fit our team very well. It just seemed like he was the total package."

Newgarden has been a quick study at every level of racing so far, since taking up karting at age 13 and winning World Kart Championships from 2005-07. He advanced through the Skip Barber Regional Series, then spent two years in Europe, where he finished second in the British Formula Ford Championship in 2009.

Back in the U.S., he posted five wins and 10 podium finishes in 14 Indy Lights races.

That vaulted him up the ladder, and the deal with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing came through early enough that he was able to move to Indianapolis and get in a couple of months working with the team.

"It's very cool," Newgarden said. "It's crazy when you think about it, that it was only eight years ago, driving a go-kart for the first time, and now I'm in IndyCar. Not many people get that opportunity. It's a crazy thing to think about.

"It's very rare. I feel very fortunate and I really want to make the most of my opportunity because not many people get this opportunity."

He twice made it into the Top 10 at Barber Motorsports Park over the weekend, and Fisher thinks he would have finished there if he hadn't had to make an extra pit stop to replace the front wing after contact with Ed Carpenter.

"To pass anybody at Barber is hard," said Wilson, who has been friends with Newgarden for several years. "I saw him make quite a few passes, and they're very decisive.

"His speed is one thing. He's just not driving like a rookie. He's very committed, very decisive. He knows exactly what he needs to do."

Newgarden isn't in a rush to become a household name like Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves or ex-IndyCar driver Danica Patrick. He said hardly anyone recognized him at St. Pete, gravitating instead toward Fisher. And that's not such a bad thing.

"I'd rather do well on the track and get people to know me than get people to know me and then do really well on the track," he said. "I almost think that's how you should work. You should go out there and prove yourself."

His mother, Tina, wouldn't have it any other way.

"I told him when he was 13 and got in a go-kart, 'Don't let this go to your head, because I will smack you,'" she said, smiling. Tina Newgarden thinks her message was received.

"He has not changed one bit. What you see is what you get," she said. "He is still the person that he was when he was 13 and he stepped in a go-kart. He's always very appreciative. He's never going to forget where he comes from, and he is very focused when he's inside the car. He's got a little bit of a Jim Carrey in him when he's outside of the car. He always fools around and jokes with everybody. He's the regular, good kid."

The regular kid who has lived on his own since he was 18, trekked back and forth from suburban Nashville to Indianapolis for two years for weekend races in high school and is already competing against some of the best in open-wheel racing.

Now, he's trying to do well enough to stay put.

"Now that he's here, I think we kind of finally realized (at St. Petersburg), this is a whole different game," his father Joey Newgarden said. "Everything we've done for the last eight years to try to get to this level was one game to try to win. Now this is a whole different game: How do you stay here? How do you excel within this level? It's early on, we're trying to figure that out."