Josef Newgarden is hottest driver in IndyCar, but he has company in spotlight

Josef Newgarden takes on the art of improvisation (3:50)

Sam Alipour joins defending IndyCar series champion Josef Newgarden for an improv workshop followed by a performance at the legendary Second City. (3:50)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Josef Newgarden captured the 2017 IndyCar Series championship amid a victory spree that has seen him hoist the winner's trophy in five of the past 11 races dating to last season.

The hottest driver on the IndyCar circuit, the 27-year-old from Tennessee -- yes, he's from Tennessee and spells his name with an f -- doesn't dominate the headlines here in Indianapolis.

In many ways, that's a good thing for the series, as it has several drivers attracting at least some of the spotlight heading into Sunday's 102nd Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (11 a.m. ET, ABC).

But if Newgarden wins the Indianapolis 500, the Team Penske driver could possibly become the new face of IndyCar.

"At this point, that is the difference-maker," said Newgarden, who starts fourth Sunday. "You can win more championships and it probably would be just be same old, same old -- no one is going to think negatively on it, but there's probably not much to add.

"The 500 would add a lot of value."

But how much? Scott Dixon won in 2008 and has four titles, and although he's a face in the racing world and among its fans, his fame has not spread to the casual sports fan.

The popular storylines include Indianapolis native Ed Carpenter sitting on the pole. Danica Patrick, in her final race, starts seventh. Helio Castroneves, a three-time race winner whose national profile grew with his 2007 victory on "Dancing With the Stars," starts eighth.

Even a driver not in the field, James Hinchcliffe, has a story -- nearly killed in practice in 2015, winning the Indy 500 pole in 2016 and then not making the race this year -- that has attracted headlines in part because he, like Castroneves, went the dancing-show route, doing so in 2016 and making it to the finals.

"All of the drivers in the series to an extent are the face of the series," Hinchcliffe said. "The sport like this revolves around the personalities. There is no one driver for everybody.

"I've been very lucky. I've had some cool opportunities to get in front of some broader fan bases and other fan bases and things like that, broader audiences."

Those broader endeavors by IndyCar drivers include 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi teaming with fellow IndyCar driver Conor Daly for "The Amazing Race." They start in the back row Sunday.

"If no IndyCar driver was ever on a reality show ever again, the series doesn't fold -- that's not the key," Hinchcliffe said. "But every bit helps. We're very much at a point of the sport where we're growing as a series, we're gaining more national attention and our drivers are being considered for things like this when they weren't before.

"Any time you put an IndyCar driver in front of a new audience, that's a good thing."

The new audience doesn't arrive just via television. Newgarden teammate Simon Pagenaud won the 2016 IndyCar title. The Frenchman feels accepted by fans in the United States, and he sees that growing with a Penske social media push for "The Penske Games," where drivers compete in silly events.

"I suck at it, but people love it," Pagenaud said. "I didn't expect people are going to like it. I'm impressed with the following that I have. I don't think an American driver in France would have as much following."

But should an IndyCar champion have to do things like trying to say words while stuffing marshmallows into his mouth to garner attention?

"Most people don't understand [if I say] my car was loose -- they don't care," Pagenaud said. "They want to know what you feel and what drives you and what gets you to wake up every morning to do it and why do it.

"Stuffing marshmallows down your face seems silly in a way, but people like it because they can relate to you. It is something they will do, and they will have fun with it."

And that's the challenge for Newgarden. Proving himself while driving for team owners Sarah Fisher and Carpenter and thinking he could go to one of the sport's more consistent behemoths, he didn't want to try to show any personality that could affect a team owner's decision down the line.

He has joked that he used to be funny.

"For me, it got sucked out a little bit just because opportunities are so rare and they are far and few between. You don't want to put yourself in a compromising situation where it can hurt you," Newgarden said. "So you tend to err toward the safe side. For me, I always wanted to drive for an organization like Team Penske, so I focused on the racing side of it and what it took to be a team player."

Newgarden has started to branch out. He competed on "American Ninja Warrior," appeared on stage doing improv at Second City and tries to remain active on social media, but he admits he is more of a private person.

He isn't vying for popularity for the fame. He'll do the things that seem somewhat natural; he won't try to force something to gain attraction. But he knows a race car driver, and a sport's lifeline in general, depends on a connection with fans.

"The only thing that's ever been attractive to me from a publicity standpoint is what it could do for you in motorsports," Newgarden said. "If you have some notoriety or popularity, with that could come opportunity.

"At the end of the day, what opportunity can I get to drive race cars and win and run multiple series? If there is something that gives you that edge, you want to be successful at it."

Rossi went on "The Amazing Race" as a way to raise awareness of himself, as well as the series. He doesn't get recognized much from being on that show. People still recognize him more as an Indy 500 winner.

"And I think that's a fortunate thing," Rossi said.

Dixon, armed with four IndyCar titles at Ganassi and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 victory, isn't looking for attention.

"With James, he was obviously a closet dancer and we saw how good he was," Dixon said with a laugh.

But don't expect Dixon to do it, and if Hinchcliffe or others garner the attention, well ...

"Fine with me," Dixon said. "Whatever floats your boat. It's not something I chase. It's not something I'd really be into. I'd rather fly under the radar."

Newgarden shouldn't fly under the radar if he keeps at the pace he has in the past 11 races.

"[Last year] was difficult," Newgarden said. "It was a hard year. There were a lot of ups and downs. We were peaking at the right point. Now we're trying to pick up from that and make it better.

"It's a great time to be a part of this series. It's got a lot of excitement and hope in front of it. ... People are starting to look at the brand of IndyCar again, and they understand what it is and they like it."

Newgarden loves NASCAR and Formula One, and if he gets any opportunities to potentially do those, he'd have interest. He wants to go wherever he can have the most success.

Maybe six years ago, when Patrick made the move from IndyCar to NASCAR, she in part was chasing the money and the notoriety it appeared only NASCAR could give.

There is no feeling of pressure for Newgarden to make such a jump.

"For me, it was always about where can you have the most success and find the best situation," Newgarden said. "Of course, you want the other stuff [in notoriety], too -- you'd be silly to not. But that was never the main goal. The main goal was how do I get in the best car and win the most races? Normally if you do that, the other stuff follows."

The good thing for Newgarden is that if he continues to perform, he should have a spot at Penske, with a team owner who leverages his other business to help create business-to-business plays and attract sponsorship.

"There's no question what he brought to the sport," team owner Roger Penske said. "He's an American. He's in an American series. He's very, very confident as a driver.

"His team effort within the team has been terrific. He gets it. He understands the commercial activity from the standpoint of sponsors. ... I see him with a long, long runway and hope it's with us for a long time."