Josef Newgarden is already taking a different path in trying to win another IndyCar Series title.
When the American won the 2017 championship in his debut season for Team Penske, Newgarden didn't even have the points lead until three wins and two runner-up finishes in the final six races.
Just past the halfway point this season, with nine races down and eight to go, Newgarden already has won a series-high three times, all at tracks where he hadn't won before. Except for slipping to second after a fourth-place finish at the Indianapolis 500, he has been on top throughout 2019.
"Well, it's always better leading than following ... you can decide your destiny a bit more," Newgarden said. "There's so much that can happen. You can have a stellar first half of the season and a terrible second half, or vice versa. We've seen it many times from different drivers, different years."
Like last season when Newgarden was the defending IndyCar champion and won two of the first four races. But his only other win was at Road America in Wisconsin, and he didn't have another podium finish.
The IndyCar season resumes this weekend at Road America after a break that followed Newgarden's win at Texas two weeks ago. The 14-turn course near Elkhart Lake is the first of four consecutive IndyCar tracks where he has been to victory lane.
"Josef is up, as he always is, super strong as a championship driver," said Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, his Penske teammate who is 48 points back in third place.
"I'm still 28, so I'm pretty young in the game, but I do feel like a veteran," Newgarden said. "I feel like I've done it forever, I feel like I've seen a lot. I know there's still a lot to learn, but it gives you a lot of confidence knowing that you've kind of been there and ... you've seen a lot of situations."
Another 28-year-old American driver, Alexander Rossi of Andretti Motorsports, trails Newgarden by 25 points. Rossi has been the runner-up three times the past four races, twice to Newgarden.
Newgarden was only the second American driver since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to win the IndyCar title, following Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012. When Tennessee native Newgarden did it two years ago at age 26, he was the youngest championship driver since Hornish, who was 23 for his first title in 2002.
While still in his 20s, this is Newgarden's eighth IndyCar season. He has 13 wins in his 126 races, 10 of those victories coming in the last 32 races.
"I had no way of knowing this when I first started, but experience really does pay dividends. It's amazing how much better you get," Newgarden said. "You really sort of understand how it all pieces together, and you can see the picture a lot more clearly. Every year you do it, that picture becomes clearer, what you need to do, and what you need to focus on."
Newgarden started competitive kart racing at age 13, and spent time in the Skip Barber National Series before going to Europe. He came back to win the Indy Lights championship for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2011, when he had five wins and five other podium finishes in 14 races.
He made his IndyCar debut with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing from 2012-14, then got his first two wins in 2015 after that team merged with Ed Carpenter's team to form CFH Racing for one season. Newgarden won another race driving for Carpenter in 2016 before Roger Penske tabbed the up-and-coming driver to replace Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya.
Penske drivers Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves finished 1-2-3 in the 2016 season standings, followed by Newgarden.
"I don't think I would change the way my career path has gone. I actually think it's what made me as a driver that I am today," Newgarden said. "I've developed at a certain rate, and I've been exposed to certain situations that have helped me. I think it's put me in a good place where I'm at now."