BY JIM MILLER WEEKLY INDYCAR WRITER
Simon Pagenaud (Chevrolet/Team Penske) came in to the final weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series with a 43-point lead over teammate Will Power (Chevrolet/Team Penske). He only needed to finish in fifth place or higher to win the championship whereas Power needed to win with Pagenaud finishing in sixth or worse, or come in second and Pagenaud placing no higher than eleventh. Math aside, it didn’t matter as the 32-year old Frenchman ably won the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma for his fifth win of the season securing his first Season Championship.
Pagenaud’s weekend began by winning his seventh pole position this year. Power qualified in fourth behind fellow Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. Roger Penske’s weekend started with a 1-2-3-4 starting grid.
On-track temperatures exceeded 120 degrees resulting in more attention being paid to tire degradation and pit strategies. Taking four pit stops or going with three but managing fuel consumption was the decision. Pagenaud is a master of coasting into turns to conserve fuel which was his plan to stay ahead of Power and the field.
Power was the only person who had a chance to snatch the championship from Pagenaud but that possibility ceased to exist on Lap 36 when Power’s clutch control unit malfunctioned causing him to coast to a stop on the track bringing out the only full course caution of the race. After being towed into the pits and getting repaired he reentered the race 8 laps down. Power finished the day in 20th position giving him second place in the season championship.
Pagenaud neatly commanded the front position throughout the day leading 76 of the 85 laps, only relinquishing the lead briefly for his three pit stops.
On Lap 70 Castroneves pitted and Pagenaud regained the lead for the final time with Graham Rahal (Honda/Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) behind him in pursuit doing his best to mount a challenge. He never managed to catch Pagenaud and claimed second place 3.2523 seconds behind. Montoya came in third followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi rounding out the top five.
Helio Castroneves finished the race in seventh place giving Roger Penske the top three finishers in the championship.
After the race Pagenaud exclaimed, “It’s unbelievable, what a race. There is so much emotion right now. I don’t think it will hit me until tomorrow. My whole career has been about getting to this point.” His mother, sister, and several of his friends flew in to see him reach this point.
With the 2016 season on the books, the “Silly Season” now begins with teams and drivers making changes. On Sunday Ryan Hunter-Reay announced a four-year extension to his DHL sponsorship and Andretti Autosport. It’s a foregone conclusion Juan Pablo Montoya has likely driven his final IndyCar race for Team Penske perhaps opening the door for Penske to sign Josef Newgarden. Sebastien Bourdais is leaving KVSH Racing to go to Dale Coyne Racing. Conor Daly has no ride confirmed next year. And Tony Kanaan, Alexander Rossi, and Carlos Munoz are a few who remain unsigned. Next season is already getting interesting.