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Josef Newgarden sets boundaries for home race after inaugural Nashville IndyCar stress

NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Josef Newgarden naturally was in the spotlight Thursday night, emceeing 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 flicking 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 consecutive year 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 the opening salvo to a weekend welcoming party for the return of NTT IndyCar Series to his Tennessee stomping grounds.

But it actually was Newgarden dropping the curtain on his appearance schedule for the weekend.

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

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

It’s a lesson learned from last season while running himself 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 also was followed by a documentary crew that produced a 22-minute episode of “Off the Grid” about the star-crossed weekend (video above).

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

His viewing of the documentary later was revelatory.

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

“I wanted to hide more than anything that weekend. It was really hard to be in everybody’s eye, but that’s part of racing. You have to thrive in those moments. I think it was a teaching moment for me. I learned how I can cope with that and where I can set boundaries.”

There have been no boundaries on improving at Nashville, which Newgarden said was one his weakest tracks in 2021.

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

“We came with something that’s productive,” he said. “We need to work on it. I have a lot of faith that with this group here we can figure it out, have a good weekend, not let this 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 posting a fifth July 30 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. He had been cleared to race only two days earlier after being hospitalized for a fall at Iowa Speedway, where he crashed from the lead while trying to complete a weekend sweep.

“I felt really good; I felt pretty normal,” Newgarden said. “I would probably say I wasn’t 100%, but I felt good. I felt normal in a lot of respects, but I’ve been trying to get myself even better. A top five was really strong for us. We needed to be in the race. I was happy to be there. I think we had more potential than fifth, but we have four races to go still. Plenty of time to make enough happen.”

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

“I try not to make it more pressure-filled than any other race,” Newgarden said. “Every event we go to is a lot of pressure. We want to perform. Doesn’t matter what race it is. Clearly this is more special being from Nashville and to have this event here.

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