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Newgarden focused only on defending Indy 500 win. Has moved past Penske cheating scandal

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Josef Newgarden is focused only on defending his Indianapolis 500 victory. If the recent Team Penske cheating scandal has stained his reputation, the two-time IndyCar champion doesn’t really care.

It was business as usual for Newgarden on Tuesday’s opening day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where all-day rain kept him off track for all but a single lap. With idle time came chatter about Newgarden’s standing in the IndyCar paddock and if he’s damaged his credibility among his peers.

“I’d ask him. I don’t think he’s said a word to anybody,” rival driver Graham Rahal said.

Newgarden set an entirely different scene and insisted everything has felt rather normal over the three weeks since IndyCar stripped him of his season-opening victory for illegally using the push-to-pass system during restarts, when the boost of horsepower is banned.

Team Penske had installed the same software system it had used during August testing of hybrid engines and it included an override code that allowed the three Penske drivers to use P2P at times the rest of the field could not. All three Penske drivers were fined $25,000, even though Will Power never used the function.

Roger Penske, who owns the race team, IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500, has since suspended four team members — including team president Tim Cindric — for two races and the benching covers the May 26 “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Although Penske maintains the software was mistakenly installed and chalked the entire incident up to miscommunication and a breakdown of processes, Newgarden has said he thought the rule had been changed when he pushed the button and unexpectedly received a horsepower boost. He’s admitted to illegally using the P2P three times in the March race at St. Petersburg, Florida.

Regardless of intent, the entire scandal has tainted Team Penske and is hanging over both IndyCar’s showcase event and its reigning winner. A photograph from Barber Motorsport Park in Alabama, the first race held after Newgarden’s disqualification, showed all the drivers standing and talking ahead of the start with Newgarden standing alone off to the side looking at his phone.

But he denied Tuesday there’s any friction, despite what Rahal intimated.

“It’s felt really good, to be honest,” Newgarden said. “Everything’s felt pretty normal this month for me.”

It got a bit awkward when Newgarden was told that Rahal, who was standing about 10 feet away from him at the time, had said Newgarden hasn’t spoken to his fellow competitors.

“That’s what Graham told you?” Newgarden asked. “I’ll leave it at Graham’s word.”

But when pressed if he has spoken to other drivers since the scandal broke, Newgarden wasn’t entirely clear.

“I’ll say this — I haven’t talked to Graham, OK?” he said. “There’s a lot of guys here. How many guys are here? 34 guys? Yeah, he’s one person that I haven’t talked to. I can confirm that.”

Sure enough, moments later Newgarden engaged in a long conversation with former Penske driver Helio Castroneves. The four-time Indy 500 winner spent 20 years driving for the organization and said although he was surprised that Penske suspended Cindric, the IndyCar team manager and two engineers, he fully supported his former organization.

“I know it was a mistake, even though I am not with the organization, I worked with them for so many years, so I know it was just a mistake,” Castroneves said, alluding to Penske’s pristine image.

Castroneves also seemed to be one of the few in the paddock who believes Newgarden thought his P2P button worked because there had been a rule change.

“As a driver in terms of that scenario, out of habit, you press the button, who knows if it is going to work or not?” Castroneves said. “In this particular case, it did and once he figured that out, he used it. But I 100% support him.”

He said he felt those criticizing Newgarden are simply “trying to put some fuel to the fire” to rattle the reigning Indianapolis winner. And despite his smile, his openness about the situation and everything-is-fine approach, Newgarden might actually be rattled.

Newgarden has spun during practice sessions in the two races since IndyCar revealed the scandal, but even worse is that his results have fallen off. After winning St. Pete and finishing fourth at Long Beach, Newgarden was 16th at Barber and 17th last Saturday on the road course at Indy.

The Indy road course race was his first working without Cindric, who calls strategy for Newgarden. He said he’s only spoken to Cindric once since the suspensions were handed down last week and it was after the Indy race. He said he told Cindric he missed him not being in Indianapolis to suffer through a miserable on-track day alongside him.

Cindric instead spent last weekend at Laguna Seca in California, where Penske’s IMSA sports car team won the race. His presence with the Porsche team irked many in the IndyCar paddock, who felt that Cindric working another Penske race while on suspension was a soft punishment. That sparked questions about just how suspended the four employees actually are and if they can use technology to still assist in Indy 500 prep and on actual race day.

“Look, we’re here, I’m working with the group I got here,” Newgarden said. He added that there “hasn’t been (discussion) so far and I don’t anticipate that” about finding a way to utilize the suspended team members the next two weeks.

Two of the suspended employees work on Power’s car and two on Newgarden’s. Scott McLaughlin, who had his third-place finish at St. Pete thrown out and said he used the button once for 1.9 seconds, did not have any crew members suspended.

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AP Motorsports: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer

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