Although it was 19-year-old star Colton Herta standing atop the podium at Sunday's IndyCar season finale, it was Team Penske's Josef Newgarden who had the most to celebrate. After leading the series in championship points for most of 2019, he was able to clinch his second IndyCar title in three years at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca with a safe P8 finish. Fellow Penske driver Simon Pagenaud and Andretti Autosport's Alexander Rossi were unable to usurp the Tennessean, both finishing too far down in the order to overcome the sizable points deficit heading into the event.
Newgarden started in fourth, just behind Rossi, knowing that he needed a clean race to tie together his year-long efforts. With Herta pulling away toward the front, Rossi and Scott Dixon—also a title contender, albeit further back than his compatriots—aimed for the lead. Dixon would push on throughout, challenging Herta while maintaining an arm's-length distance that wouldn't nullify his pace or title chances.
Pagenaud replaced Rossi in the top-five, even leading a lap, as Newgarden's pit crew busted out a faster stop than Rossi's while they simultaneously pulled in for fresh tires. This, along with a strategy that had Rossi conserving his Firestones to make the most out of each stint, relegated him to P6 at day's end.
Near the halfway point, it was clear that drivers outside the championship fight were strongest. Herta laid down one fast lap after another, as did fellow rookie Felix Rosenqvist and Will Power. It then became a game of outguessing the others on when to pit, where to pass, and how to apply the precious 50 extra horsepower courtesy of Push to Pass.
Herta and Power partook in a stellar fight for the lead with the latter showing his expertise and record-setting quickness over any given lap. The Aussie narrowed his deficit to Herta's No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Honda, trailing by just .75 seconds, but with only four seconds of Push to Pass remaining, he was no match for the rookie's 40 seconds of extra boost. They would cross the finish line separated by only 0.58 seconds, with Dixon beating Pagenaud to the podium by an even narrower .11-second gap.
Herta locked in his second victory of the season, following his third pole position which he achieved on Saturday. However, he missed out on Rookie of the Year by five points as Rosenqvist’s consistency earned him the award after a stellar first-year campaign.
Although Newgarden strolled in behind his rivals, he executed his precise plan and finished in a high enough position that landed him and boss Roger Penske another piece of IndyCar hardware.
When asked about taking a conservative approach to Sunday's season-ender instead of going all-out, Newgarden replied, “I was so pissed earlier and I thought we were throwing it away. We were trying to think as a team there and obviously we were trying to divide and conquer. They just did such a great job, this group all year long, and I didn’t want to throw it away at the end and do something silly. But man, they called a great race and I tried to be as smart as I could today."
Newgarden left Monterey a two-time champion and Roger Penske is now a 16-time title-winning owner, which pairs nicely with his 18 career Indianapolis 500 victories.