Tennessee driver Josef Newgarden still chasing elusive Indy 500 win

INDIANAPOLIS - Josef Newgarden has been IndyCar's most consistent winner over the past eight seasons.

His 22 trips to victory lane are a series high in that span, he has won two or more races six straight years and he is chasing what would be his third league championship in six seasons.

But when the 31-year-old Tennessean arrives in Indianapolis each May, those impressive feats take a back seat to another agonizing litany of questions about the most famous three words missing from his resumé: Indianapolis 500 champion.

"Of course I want to win here, everybody wants to win here, but Indianapolis is a tough place to tame. It's a tough place to get it right on the day," he said before qualifying 14th last weekend for Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A 500 win certainly would cement Newgarden's claim as one of his generation's greatest drivers. Until that day comes, though, the series' one-time heartthrob continues to relive all the heartaches he has endured at the Brickyard.

Despite consistently ranking among the month of May's fastest drivers, working for the most successful team in series history and calling a handful of 500 champions teammates with Roger Penske's outfit, Newgarden has continued to fall short.

He has never won the pole, never driven into victory lane and has only one front-row start at the Indy 500. His best May didn't even come with Team Penske; in 2016, he started a career-best second and finished a career-best third driving for Ed Carpenter.

Penske hired Newgarden the following season, and he has career wins at 11 of the 15 venues the American open-wheel circuit will visit this season, with two notable spots among the missing: his hometown of Nashville and Indy. He has never started or finished higher than fourth for Penske in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

"You look at this place and it chooses you, and you've just got to be ready when it does," Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. "It's the same questions all the time until you do win. You see it in NASCAR, too, with Kyle Busch or Tony Stewart at the Daytona 500."

Newgarden is still in the prime of his career, still a feared competitor, but everyone understands IndyCar success is measured by wins in the crown jewel event. In Newgarden's 10 Indy 500 starts, the first with Sarah Fisher's team, he has three top-10 finishes and five results of 12th or worse.

A breakthrough win this weekend would change Newgarden's life. He'd grab headlines, hit the interview circuit, maybe even reinforce his image as America's top IndyCar driver. But most of all, he would no longer have to answer all the questions about those three most elusive words.

"I don't know what a win would mean; I've never experienced it," Newgarden said. "But I see it. When you talk to 500 winners, you know what it means."

This year's Indy 500 will have another touch of Nashville thanks to the presence of country music star Blake Shelton, whose role as grand marshal for the race was announced Thursday.

The singer and songwriter, also a coach on NBC reality series "The Voice," will give the traditional command for drivers to report to their cars during official ceremonies. Shelton has a lengthy association with auto racing, including serving as grand marshal for the NASCAR All-Star Race this past Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, where he played a concert before the event.

Another taste of NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. - Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One champion, will compete in a NASCAR Cup Series race on Aug. 21 at Watkins Glen International, where he'll be behind the wheel of Trackhouse Racing's No. 91 Chevrolet on the road course in New York state.

Raikkonen, 42, retired from F1 last year after competing with the Sauber, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus and Alfa Romeo teams. The Finland native earned 21 victories among 103 top-three finishes during his time on the international open-wheel circuit, a career that spanned from 2001-09 and then from 2012-21 - with a break to compete in the World Rally Championship series. He won his F1 title driving for Scuderia Ferrari.

He will be participating in the Cup Series race as part of a Trackhouse program announced Tuesday called PROJECT91, which aims to the expand the NASCAR team's global reach by fielding an entry for renowned international racing drivers. Trackhouse Racing is a division of Trackhouse Entertainment Group, a venture of former driver Justin Marks and Grammy Award-winning rapper Pitbull.

Raikkonen previously competed in NASCAR races on the second-tier Xfinity Series and third-tier Truck Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2011. He has never run a Cup Series race.

"I wasn't looking to race again, but Justin came to my home in Switzerland and convinced me how serious he was about putting together a top-notch program," Raikkonen said in a news release Thursday. "This will be fun, but it's something I will take very seriously. I know how competitive the NASCAR Cup Series is, and it will be a big challenge."

Marks said Raikkonen's entry at Watkins Glen is the only PROJECT91 race planned for 2022, but the team owner expects more races in 2023 with additional drivers. Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez are full-time Cup Series drivers for Trackhouse, which launched last year with Suarez in the No. 91 car and expanded this season with the No. 99 handled by Chastain, who has two wins.

Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney said he's looking forward to competing against Raikkonen, saying it is great for the sport.

"Yeah, the Iceman," the 28-year-old Blaney said. "I'm a big fan and enjoyed watching him growing up and racing F1. I think it's a great idea."