INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- In the slow buildup to the Indianapolis 500, Josef Newgarden talked openly about having to put on a brave face when he would arrive at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and how so many failures in the race that mattered most had weighed on him.
On Monday, Newgarden showed up wearing a smile.
He had passed Marcus Ericsson in a last-lap sprint to the finish a day earlier, and was back at the mostly empty speedway for all the spoils. He chatted with team owner Roger Penske, who got his 19th victory but first since purchasing the track, and posed for countless photos on the yard of bricks. William Behrends, the sculptor who will craft Newgarden's face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, took reference images, and Newgarden later sat in a chair and fiddled with the Indy 500 ring on his finger.
"Each year gets tougher when you run it 12 years in a row. It just gets harder and harder to leave here with a broken heart," Newgarden told The Associated Press. "You know, everybody that doesn't win the race, I believe, ends up with a broken heart, or at least I have left every year just shattered, and you got to build yourself back up really quickly and keep going.
"So you know, I just removed it from the equation that it had to happen," Newgarden continued. "It's because maybe if it doesn't, that's OK. My career wouldn't be a failure. I don't feel that way. And I don't think anyone else should."
Still, there was a palpable sense of relief when Newgarden took the checkers, stopped his car at the flag stand and found a hole in the fence -- he'd noticed it there years ago -- and crawled under to celebrate with fans on the front stretch.
It wasn't only Newgarden who had been putting on a brave face for the Indy 500. It was the entirety of Team Penske, the gold standard in IndyCar, but whose 18 -- ahem, now 19 -- triumphs in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" began to seem long ago.
In the four years since Simon Pagenaud reached victory lane on a dominant day for Team Penske, with Newgarden and Will Power joining him in the top five, there had been a pandemic that shut down the world; Penske had closed on his purchase of IndyCar and the speedway; and teammates had come and gone from the organization.
Newgarden has been a mainstay, though, ever since joining Power to become a cornerstone of the team in 2017, when he arrived from Ed Carpenter Racing and promptly won the series title. Newgarden added another IndyCar title two years later.
Yet the Indianapolis 500 had eluded him.
He finished eighth in 2018, fourth the next year and fifth in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the race to be run in August. The last two years? Newgarden failed to finish in the top 10, joining the rest of Team Penske in struggling on race day.
"I'm still in the camp that the championship is tougher," Newgarden admitted after dousing himself in milk and kissing the yard of bricks Sunday. "But I don't know how you compare the two. You're looking at one standalone versus a championship, and putting a championship together is, I think, very, very difficult. You really see the best rise to the top. You see the best team, the best pit-stop performance. Consistently it adds up over a year, and it's very difficult to do that.
"This is the single-most difficult race in the world to win," Newgarden added. "I'll stand by that. There's no doubt."
That he even had a chance to win Sunday would have been surprising a week earlier, when Newgarden struggled again with qualifying. He was solidly in the field but stuck near the middle of the pack, so he made a bold decision to take his time off the board and go again. The risky gamble wound up being a wash; Newgarden still started in the middle of the sixth row.
He had a quiet race, too, steering clear of trouble over a mostly forgettable first 180 laps.
The drama began with a red flag a few laps later, the first of three that IndyCar threw before the finish. But it was the last one that spurred controversy. Ericsson was leading the race and thought he had won when the yellow flag was flying with two laps to go. Instead, the cars were pulled down pit road and brought to a stop to set up a one-lap shootout.
Ericsson said later he disagreed with the decision, calling it unsafe to take green and white flags simultaneously on the first lap out of the pits. Newgarden was just thankful for a chance -- something that had eluded Scott Dixon and many others who were forced to ride around under caution and watch someone else take the checkered flags.
"I'm happy they did it to give a good finish," Newgarden said.
One that had the crowd of more than 300,000 on its feet. Ericsson held the lead through Turns 1 and 2, watched Newgarden slip around him on the backstretch, then made a bold snake-like move out of Turn 4 to hold him off the win.
As he was finding a hole in the fence to celebrate with fans, Penske and the rest of the team was celebrating. Over near his pit box, Newgarden's wife, Ashley, crouched down with her face in her hands and cried.
"She's probably got the toughest job in our family, not just because she looks out for everything else and helps make my world go 'round, but she sees the negative impact -- she sees the heartbreak -- more than anyone else. She knows what that's like," he said. "I'm just happy we were able to finally win it. She knows that, too."