Josef Newgarden sets the boundaries for Nashville’s home run

NASHVILLE, TN – Joseph Newgarden naturally, it was in the spotlight on Thursday nightrunning his charity ping pong tournament on the eve of the Music City Grand Prix.

Bouncing between interviews with national and local media, cuddling puppies and deftly swinging a paddle for the better part of two hours, Newgarden (who lives full-time in Nashville with his wife Ashley and newborn son Kota) was the host with the most in his hometown.

The fourth annual Celebrity Ping Pong Challenge (held for the second year in a row in Nashville) raised more than $65,000 for charities Serious Fun Children’s Network and Wags and Walks (hence the puppies) and drew more than a dozen IndyCar drivers to Pins Mechanical in downtown Nashville.

It seemed like the opening salvo to the weekend welcome party for the return of the NTT IndyCar Series to its home turf in Tennessee.

But Newgarden actually brought the curtain down on his weekend performance schedule.

For the next three days, the two-time series champion said he will be focused entirely on the track.

“One hundred percent; I shut everything else out,” Newgarden said Thursday. “This event was the priority. I really wanted to raise some money for these great organizations, but other than that, I just want to be in the race. So whatever else we have to do , let’s not do it. I just tried to give myself a little bit of a better chance.”

It’s a lesson learned from last season while running ragged during IndyCar’s first visit to Nashville. For four days, Newgarden embraced the role of primary ambassador for the inaugural Music City Grand Prix. In between fulfilling every appearance and interview request, he was also followed by a documentary crew who produced a 22-minute episode of “Off the Grid” for the star-studded weekend.

Newgarden crashed his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet at Turn 11 during qualifying and finished 10thth after starting 12th.

His viewing of the documentary later was a revelation.

“I thought it was funny; you could feel the intensity on me this weekend, a lot of frustration,” Newgarden told NBC Sports during a preseason interview. “Nashville was a lot to take in and I was surprised how much I expanded. I really thought I would be better at trying to prioritize the racing side of the weekend. I knew how important this would be and how much I would be pulled in every direction. I think that got the better of me. … My focus was just pulled too much from the side of the track. And when I was on the track and saw the footage, you saw a lot of frustration from me. Being shelled a lot.

“I wanted to hide more than anything that weekend. It was really hard to be in everyone’s eyes, but that’s part of the competition. You should thrive in those moments. I think that was a learning moment for me. I learned how I can deal with it and where I can set boundaries.”

There was no room for improvement at Nashville, which Newgarden said was one of his weakest tracks in 2021.

His team brought a radical new setup that showed promise with the fifth-fastest speed in practice on Friday.

“We came up with something that is productive,” he said. “We have to work on it. I have a lot of faith that with this group here we can figure it out, have a good weekend and not let it be a negative in the last four (races of the season). I think we can have a great weekend here as a whole team.”

Newgarden is 32 points behind teammate Will Power with four races remaining after recording fifth on July 30 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been cleared to race just two days earlier after being hospitalized for a fall at a track in Iowa where he crashed out of the lead while trying to finish the weekend.

“I felt really good; I felt completely normal,” Newgarden said. “I would probably say I’m not 100%, but I felt good. I felt normal in many ways, but I was trying to get even better. The top five was really strong for us. We had to enter the competition. I was happy to be there. I think we had more potential than fifth, but we still have four races to go. Enough time for enough to happen.”

Starting with what he hopes is a clean – and quiet – weekend at home.

“I try not to make it more intense than any other race,” Newgarden said. “Every event we go to is a lot of pressure. We want to perform. It doesn’t matter what race it is. It’s obviously extra special to be from Nashville and have this event here.

“We want people to come to Nashville and think of it as an event, a Super Bowl-type event. So there’s a lot of pressure on that. I do it like any other race, any other day. Focus on my work. I think if you do that, you give yourself a better opportunity to just run the race that you would normally run and potentially win it.

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