Josef Newgarden qualifying in Verizon Indy car at Indianapolis
Josef Newgarden streaks — backwards — down the front straight at IMS during qualifying for the 2018 INDYCAR Grand Prix. | Photo: Aaron Durant / The Apex

For reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, just improving upon his practice pace was the goal during qualifying for this year’s race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

After lapping within 0.1936 seconds of Will Power in Friday’s morning practice session, Newgarden fell back to 10th in Practice 2, more than three-tenths back from Power, who was fastest again.

Newgarden exits IMS road course turn
Josef Newgarden speeds out of Turn 4 during practice on the IMS road course on Friday, May 11, 2018. | Photo: Walter Kuhn / INDYCAR

As the youngest member of Team Penske’s four-car fleet for both May races in Indianapolis, Newgarden began his INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend among a surprisingly large group of drivers who struggled to find comfort and speed in their machines.

The Hendersonville, Tennessee native just squeaked by in both rounds of knockout qualifying that preceded the Firestone Fast 6 session, narrowly avoiding the cutoff between the sixth- and seventh-fastest drivers by placing fifth in Round 1 and sixth in Round 2.

Having punched his ticket to the six-minute outing that decides the six frontmost grid positions, Newgarden was already well ahead of where he very well could have been in qualifying given his experience in practice.

“I think the big thing was getting in the Fast 6, for us,” Newgarden said after qualifying. “Unfortunately that was kind of my goal.

“We’d been in the top 10, just kind of hovering in it. We haven’t been super strong this weekend — been kind of tentative throughout.”

Newgarden wins NHL playoffs bet with Hinchcliffe
Josef Newgarden found himself on the winning side of a bet made with James Hinchcliffe over how far their favorite NHL teams would go in the playoffs. | Photo: Shawn Gritzmacher / INDYCAR

Putting aside the point of reference garnered in practice, Newgarden enjoyed a better feeling during qualifying.

“I think we probably had third or fourth potential,” noted the American.

“We ran out the one lap, had a huge lockup in Turn 1 with the rear, and then just didn’t really get to finish it. Not ultimately where we would have landed, but I think we were in that third or fourth range, so, happy to be in the Fast 6. I think that’s good for us tomorrow — we can work with that.”

Despite carrying a nearly identical livery to his Australian stablemate Power who was fastest every time IndyCar hit the track Friday, Newgarden has had a much less successful start to the race weekend that precedes the Indianapolis 500.

He may have reached the Firestone Fast 6, but he was nearly a second slower than pole sitter Power and more than half a second back from fifth-placed rookie Jordan King in the session.

“We’ve just got to keep trying to chip away and find our speed, and we’ve just been missing it this weekend for whatever reason,” Newgarden continued. “I think we’re getting there.

“We made some progress in qualifying, we just have to keep going and make it last for tomorrow now.”

When the green flag flies Sunday at 3:50 p.m. EDT to begin the 85-lap INDYCAR Grand Prix, Newgarden will aim to advance from sixth on the grid to maintain his points lead over Alexander Rossi, who will start directly behind his fellow American in eighth.

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