Music City Grand Prix brings IndyCar to Nashville for second straight year

AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Fans watch a practice session Friday for Sunday's Music City Grand Prix, which will bring IndyCar racing to Nashville for the second year in a row.

NASHVILLE - Josef Newgarden wasn't at peak physical condition when he raced last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That much he admits.

But sitting out would have crippled his chances at the IndyCar season championship, so getting the medical clearance to compete - a necessity because he collapsed the weekend before that after a race at Iowa Speedway - and then giving the best he could on the road course at IMS was Newgarden's only choice. He finished fifth to maintain his hold on third place in the points standings.

"I wasn't 100%, but I felt good, I felt normal in a lot of respects, but I'm trying to get myself even better," Newgarden said. "We needed to be in the race, and I was happy to be there."

Next up is his hometown race, the second Music City Grand Prix through the streets of downtown Nashville. Newgarden was an ambassador for last year's inaugural race that brought the American open-wheel series to NASCAR country, and the commitments admittedly stretched him thin ahead of his deflating 10th-place finish.

That won't be good enough Sunday for Newgarden's quest for a third IndyCar season championship. So he slimmed down his obligations ahead of this year's race and used several days this week to reset in the wake of his recent disruption.

Newgarden won the first race of the Iowa doubleheader on Saturday, July 23, to take the series points lead, but he crashed hard the next day while leading the second race in pursuit of a weekend sweep. The incident dropped him to third in the standings, and then came a medical scare: Newgarden was cleared in the care center but then lost consciousness in the motorhome lot and hit his head.

It's believed he sustained a concussion when his head hit the pavement. That required deliberate care to ensure Newgarden would be cleared to race last Saturday. When the race at IMS ended, he felt "just tired."

"I was fatigued from the intense week," he said. "It wasn't so much that I was dealing with symptoms, I just wasn't 100% energy. I feel like this week, I've had more time to rest, and I'll be more myself this weekend."

photo AP photo by Darron Cummings / Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden waits in the pits before last Saturday's IndyCar race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Newgarden is in a tight title fight with six drivers separated by 52 points with four races remaining. Fellow Team Penske driver Will Power cycled into the lead for the third time this season after finishing third in Indianapolis. Newgarden, with a series-best four wins this season, is 32 points behind his teammate.

Newgarden is passionate about IndyCar in Nashville and last year packed his schedule with appearances to promote the race. This year he cut back to only his fourth annual ping-pong tournament for charity. About a dozen of his fellow competitors played in the tournament Thursday, when Newgarden's team advanced to the final but lost.

He said the charity event was a priority. Newgarden, via an IndyCar bonus program, already earned a $1 million prize this season, and $500,000 was split between two charities of his choice. The tournament also benefited the two charities, Wags and Walks of Nashville and the SeriousFun Children's Network.

As for the race, the debut Music City GP was a mess last year as nine cautions forced 33 of the 80 laps to be run under yellow, and even winner Marcus Ericsson recovered after an airborne crash to open the event.

But the traffic jams, track blockage, water on the racing surface and bumpy Nashville city streets all played a part in one of the sloppiest IndyCar events in years. That has led to several tweaks ahead of Sunday's race on Nashville's 11-turn, 2.1-mile course.