Fifteen years ago, if you would have told Josef Newgarden that he would be an IndyCar champion, driving for one of the most successful motorsport teams in the world, you would have mostly likely received a shy smile with an optimistic “I hope so.”

Now, just 26 years old and fresh off his sixth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Nashville, Tennessee native finds himself in that exact scenario.

“I never thought that this would happen,” Newgarden said. “I never thought that I would drive professionally.”

Newgarden clinched his first IndyCar Series championship on Sept. 17 in Sonoma, California.

“Winning a championship at a professional auto racing level was something I always wanted to do, and to do it with a team that I respect so much in Team Penske, that was a big day,” Newgarden said.

A big day indeed, and with that success on the track, the young American’s popularity off the track continues to grow — something Newgarden says he still needs to get used to.

“I’m actually a total introvert, and it’s something I’ve had to work on,” he said. “You have to work at being a heightened person of yourself within the sport, because you want to show your personality, tell people who you are and help them build an interest for the sport.”

Newgarden added that although he continues to learn and deal with the responsibility of being the face of North America’s premier open-wheel series, it’s one that he’s grateful for.

“It’s a good responsibility to have,” Newgarden said. “As the champion, you try and show people the positive sides of the sport, why you like it, and you try to get other people excited about it as well.”

Having appeared on the 2016 season of ABC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” Newgarden said it would take a little more for him to follow in fellow driver James Hinchliffe’s dancing footsteps and appear on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

“I would have to find something very different from within myself,” Newgarden joked, applauding his fellow competitor for his runner-up finish on the popular celebrity-dance contest in 2016.

“James was perfect for it,” Newgarden said. “He’s such a goofball and really able to put himself out there and enjoy it. I think I could do it because I’m similar in some ways.”

However, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Newgarden, who struggled to adapt to the IndyCar Series as a young rookie driving for an underfunded Sarah Fisher-Hartman Racing team in his first three seasons.

“It wasn’t the easiest,” Newgarden said. “There were no teammates — we didn’t have unlimited resources. I had to learn a lot by myself and it was a grind. At times, I didn’t even know if I wanted to do it anymore.”

It was those trying times that Newgarden believes got him to where he is today.

“It was that process that made me very strong and developed my skill sets in such a strong way,” Newgarden said. “It’s laid a solid foundation for me to hopefully have a long, successful career in the sport.”

While on his way to being remembered as an IndyCar great, Newgarden wasn’t shy when talking about the one victory he hopes to add to his résumé in the future.

“The Indianapolis 500 is just so difficult, and you get one shot every year,” Newgarden said. “It’s not something you come by everyday.”

Although driving for the most successful team in Indianapolis 500 history in Penske, the honor also adds pressure to his goal.

“This is really what counts to them,” Newgarden said. “You want to win the championship, you want to win races all year long and I’m not discounting that. But the Indianapolis 500 is more special to them than anything else, so that’s going to be our focus next year.”

That’s the plan for next season. For now, the champion plans to enjoy his winter break.

“It hasn’t been too different [being champion] than any other offseason,” Newgarden said. “I’m sort of used to entering the offseason with the same mentality and already setting my focus for the next season.” 

With very little downtime between offseason testing and training, Newgarden plans to catch up on some rest. Not too much, though.

“My girlfriend and I like to travel,” Newgarden said. “Also, I’ve been taking up some outdoors sports in mountain biking and snowboarding. I try and get out to the mountains and snowboard in the offseason, without hurting myself of course.”

With a plan in place, Newgarden will see his first green flag of the 2018 IndyCar season in St. Petersburg in just over three months.

Contact Emerson Lehmann with comments at emersonlehmannnews@gmail.com or on Twitter at @Bille_IV.