Lights champ Josef Newgarden joins Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing

Top American prospect earns a shot in the IZOD IndyCar Series

PHOTO: After claiming the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights title (above), Josef Newgarden is moving up to IndyCar and Sarah Fisher/Hartman Racing in 2012. Credit: Chris Jones/IZOD IndyCar Series.

While all of Sarah Fisher/Hartman Racing’s 2012 plans are not yet set in stone, there is one thing certain: Wherever the team races in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship, Josef Newgarden will be their driver.

Newgarden, 20, of Hendersonville, Tennessee, was revealed earlier this morning by the Indianapolis Star’s Curt Cavin as SFHR’s new driver, replacing Ed Carpenter, who has become the driver/owner of his own squad. This afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Newgarden made his debut to the press as an IndyCar pilot.

His schedule for 2012 is not yet finalized, but the team said in a release that it anticipates a full-season effort. The team also announced a partnership with Wink Hartman, whose Hartman Oil company has been an associate backer of Fisher’s team in recent years.

“You see so many guys that don’t have the opportunity or are never given the chance to try and do this,” a humble Newgarden said at IMS. “For some reason, someone’s been looking down on me and giving me the opportunity to meet the right people and get hooked up with anyone that just wants to help or are good people. I certainly feel no different now — it’s just another one of those opportunities where I get to meet great people like Wink and Sarah and [team manager] Andy [O’Gara] that just want to give me an opportunity again to progress to the next step and continue the path that I’ve been on for a while.”

“For me and I think for everyone that’s been involved in my career and anyone that’s helped me — and certainly, my family that have stood by me and have let me do what I’ve wanted to do in life — it’s a very proud day.”

Nicknamed the “Racer of Tomorrow,” Newgarden has been tagged as a potential superstar and enters the big time after storming to the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights championship. Driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ FIL juggernaut, he won five events and claimed 10 podium finishes in 14 races to defeat runner-up Esteban Guerrieri by a whopping 94 points — almost two races’ worth of markers.

In addition to his talents, Newgarden brings a down-to-earth sense of self that’s beyond what some would expect out of a young man his age. Both elements impressed Fisher.

“[Being an American driver] didn’t hurt [the deal], but the “guy next door” personality that he is — that brand, that professionalism he already has at 20 years old — I came [to Indianapolis] at 19 and I wasn’t close to that,” Fisher said with a laugh. “I think that was really important, but, as well, his talent on all different kinds of courses.

“When we were looking at the driver [prospects] for the 67 car this year, we wanted someoone who could fit on the short ovals, the street circuits, the road courses, and here at Indy. I think we have that with Josef.”

Despite his impressive success last season, initial expectations would figure to be relatively low. In addition to being a rookie, he won’t be the only person having to acclimate to a new car in 2012. But considering his background in road/street circuits and a newfound knack for ovals that he discovered last year in Lights (three of his five wins were on speedways), his alliance with SFHR will be one to keep an eye on — and that’s not just for those already in the base that have propelled the scrappy team to fan-favorite status.

Of course, an All-American pairing of Newgarden and the still-popular Fisher should have no trouble being accepted by the diehards.