IN THE END, second place was as good as a win for Josef Newgarden (above), who was crowned the 2017 IndyCar Series champion on Sept. 17. Despite finishing 1.1 seconds behind fellow Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud at the season finale at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, Newgarden maintained his razor-thin points lead over four-time champion Scott Dixon to become, at 26, the youngest series winner since 2002, when Sam Hornish Jr. took the title at 23.
The championship tops Newgarden's already impressive résumé, which includes seven career victories and 27 top five finishes in only 100 IndyCar races. And it set off a deluge of congratulatory texts and Twitter shout-outs. Among the well-wishers were NASCAR stalwarts Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Darrell Waltrip—not that any of them are likely to get a response soon. "I'm the worst texter in the world," Newgarden says. "I'm bad at replying.... I don't know what to do with all of this."
A native of Hendersonville, Tenn., in his first season with Penske, Newgarden is the brightest star in a dazzling array of up-and-coming drivers. Nine of the top 20 points leaders this season were under 30, not including Gabby Chaves, a 24-year-old Colombian who had two top 10 finishes in just three starts.
With 42-year-old Helio Castroneves contemplating a move to a sports car circuit full-time and Dixon, 37, coming off his lowest victory total in a season since 2005 (one), young drivers will steer IndyCar's future. "Having an American champion is really important in this sport," Pagenaud says, "and Josef will be a great champion."