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Josef Newgarden was on top of the world after winning the Indy 500. This year feels much different

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A social media post designed to introduce drivers in the Indianapolis 500 to the general public put Josef Newgarden in an awkward light when the reigning race winner was asked a simple question.

“Which IndyCar driver would you take on a road trip?” asked the questionnaire.

“Solo” Newgarden responded.

An odd answer for a driver who a year ago was practically inseparable from Scott McLaughlin, his Team Penske teammate. The “Bus Bros.” had a media company, a YouTube show and merchandise. They appeared to be the best of friends and McLaughlin celebrated Newgarden when the Tennessean finally broke through to win his first Indianapolis 500.

Twelve months later, the Bus Bros. are no more, the friendship apparently unraveled after Newgarden went solo and unfollowed everyone on social media — including his wife — in a bid to rebuild his love of racing. Winning the Indy 500 wasn’t as fulfilling as he had expected; for the two-time IndyCar Series champion, racing had become a grind of too many failures and not enough successes.

Insulated but re-energized when he returned for this season, Newgarden scored an emphatic victory in the opening race in St. Petersburg, Florida. Six weeks later, IndyCar discovered illegal push-to-pass software on the three Team Penske cars and threw out both Newgarden’s win and McLaughlin’s third-place finish.

Newgarden returns to the speedway for Sunday’s race as the defending Indy 500 winner but caught in a cheating scandal that has damaged his pristine reputation and that of Team Penske. A deeply embarrassed Roger Penske suspended four team members, including team President Tim Cindric, Newgarden’s strategist.

If the drama is distracting Newgarden, he’s not let on.

He qualified third to complete Team Penske’s first front row lockout in Indy 500 qualifying since 1988. McLaughlin won the pole and Will Power qualified second.

Asked how different this year has felt from last season, when Newgarden won in his 12th try, he felt nothing much has changed.

“Feels really similar to me in a lot of ways. I feel a lot of respect for this facility and this race, this track,” Newgarden said before turning the topic to how good his Chevrolet was a year ago. “We were fortunate enough as a team, as a group, where it just fell into place for us. We had a great car. … it was our day.

“I feel the same in that regard. I think I’ve got another great race car,” he continued. “I had sort of let go of the fact that I was ever going to win this race. It’s such a tough race to win, I think you had to be comfortable with that. I think that rings true for a second. I’m happy to be here, happy to have a shot.”

PADDOCK UNREST

There remains dissatisfaction about the scandal, particularly from teams who simply don’t believe the Team Penske explanations as to how Newgarden, his engineers and McLaughlin found nothing to be amiss when their horsepower boosts worked when they should not have. It took IndyCar said Penske drivers had manipulated the push-to-pass software system on their cars; Penske and Cindric called it a miscommunication and breakdown in process.

Zak Brown, head of Arrow McLaren Racing, said the Penske punishments were too light; he called Cindric’s presence at Penske’s sports car win at Laguna Seca two weeks ago while under suspension “a bad look.”

There is skepticism that Cindric won’t be involved in some form in the race. IndyCar set no parameters on what the suspended team members can or can’t do, leaving the discipline to Penske to dole out. Penske owns not only the race team, but IndyCar itself, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500.

“Do I think Tim Cindric is engaged during the Month of May? Yes. In what way, I don’t know the rules they set out, I don’t know that,” Brown said. “But do I believe that Tim Cindric is sitting on his couch, turning on the race and watching it as 5 of 6 million other people are? No.”

Newgarden can win a $440,000 bonus from trophy-maker BorgWarner if he becomes the first driver to win back-to-back Indy 500s since the award was established in 1995. It’s been claimed only once — by Helio Castroneves after 2001 and 2002 victories — and only five drivers in 107 runnings have won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in consecutive years.

Newgarden is the race favorite, followed by McLaughlin and Kyle Larson, according to BetMGM Sportsbook. The odds made McLaughlin a little nervous and same for Larson, who couldn’t understand why anyone would “waste their money betting on me.”

Said McLaughlin: “My first Indy 500, I was headed out to driver intros and some guy screamed at me he’d bet $20,000 on me to win. And all I could think was ‘Why?’”

LARSON EFFECT

This year’s race has NASCAR star Kyle Larson in the field as he attempts to become the fifth driver in history to complete “The Double” and race in both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

The 2021 Cup Series champion is the first driver to attempt the 1,100 miles of racing since Kurt Busch in 2014. Weather is not in his favor with the Indy forecast calling for rain on Sunday.

Larson qualified fifth for his debut Indy 500 and a year’s worth of prep has gone into his joint effort between Arrow McLaren Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. Rick Hendrick, his boss, now seems to be having second thoughts about pulling Larson from Indy to get him to Charlotte Motor Speedway in time for the evening’s NASCAR race.

“At this point, just hoping the weather cooperates to get all 1,100-miles in. It’s been something I’ve looked forward to for close to two years,” Larson said. “It doesn’t look too promising for Indy on Sunday, but I think for me, where I sit, if it’s going to rain, I hope it rains all day. That way it can just get pushed to Monday or something. We can get (NASCAR) in on Sunday night and then come here Monday.”

McLaren boss Zak Brown said the decision would be solely for Hendrick to make.

CHEVROLET vs. HONDA

Chevrolet clearly had the speed benefit in qualifying when the engine maker claimed the first eight spots in qualifying. But Honda showed it can hold its own in race trim, which means there is no obvious favorite for Sunday.

“I think Chevrolet has a little bit of a power advantage right now, but you never know once the race starts,” said Chip Ganassi, who failed to qualify any of his five Honda-powered cars inside the top 12. “I’ll take a handling car any day over horsepower.”

BROWN’S OWN DOUBLE

Brown has his own eye on the weather and a plane ticket on hold for Saturday to take him to the Monaco Grand Prix if it appears the Indianapolis 500 will be rained out.

He would then attempt his own version of “The Double” and watch his F1 drivers Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri on Sunday in Monaco, then return to Indianapolis for the 500 on Monday. If he decides to stay in Indianapolis but the 500 is rained out, Brown said he’d travel to North Carolina to cheer on Larson in the Coca-Cola 600.

“I just hope it’s not a rain delay,” Brown said. “I hope it’s either a washout, chucking down rain and we’re not racing Sunday and leave, go to Charlotte, and come back. That’s the delay I want.”

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

By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer

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