SAN FRANCISCO – Simon Pagenaud and Will Power have taken entirely different paths to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series finale, but the two find themselves set to decide it all on "Championship Sunday" at Sonoma Raceway.
On Thursday, the Team Penske teammates found themselves talking about their two-man battle in downtown San Francisco after wowing pedestrians by driving their Indy cars along the famous Embarcadero roadway and stopping at iconic Pier 39. The INDYCAR Experience two-seater accompanied them, carrying with it the Astor Challenge Cup presented to the champion.
WATCH: Pagenaud and Power drive their Indy cars along the Embarcadero
Pagenaud (shown at left taking a bite out of a sourdough bread replice of the Astor Cup made by renowned Boudin Bakery) comes into this weekend’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma as the championship leader, holding a 43-point advantage over his teammate. The 32-year-old Frenchman has enjoyed a banner year with four wins, seven podiums and six poles, while also more than doubling his most laps led in a season with 330 (his previous best was 132 in 2015).
Paramount on the championship leader’s mind heading into the weekend was that the title will officially be returning to Team Penske in the organization’s 50th anniversary of racing, regardless of which driver claims top honors. Admittedly, Pagenaud said he aims to be the one to do so.
“It’s awesome to see that with our seventh-place (finish) at Watkins Glen (on Sept. 4), we were able to bring a championship to Penske, not just Roger (Penske, team owner), but the entire organization,” Pagenaud said.
“You know, it is 50 years of history and in it we managed to bring another championship. It’s obviously huge. Now I want to be the guy winning this championship. I’ve been leading (the points) all season and I really want to finish it off.”
When Pagenaud joined Team Penske in 2015, it made him teammates with Power for a second time. They previously teamed with Team Australia in Pagenaud’s rookie year of 2007 in the Champ Car World Series. Although the concept of battling his two-time teammate for the Verizon IndyCar Series title helps bring everything full circle, Pagenaud remains focused on simply finishing strong.
“That’d be awesome,” said Pagenaud, driving the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet this weekend. “I moved here in the U.S. about 10 years ago, in 2006, so I’d love to see that happen.
“It’s just the best chance I’ve had in Indy car (racing). I just want to complete the job and continue what I’ve been doing all year. No added ingredients or pressure or anything, it’s just the same as any other races.”
The path to Sonoma has been far more difficult for Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.
The 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion missed the season opener at St. Petersburg with an inner-ear infection but has since battled back with four wins of his own while fighting through the field to be second in the standings. The ideal outcome for Power to claim the title Sunday is winning with maximum points (104) and his championship rival finishing fifth or worse.
There may be no better track for Power to do it than the 2.385-mile, 12-turn permanent road course at Sonoma. He has three race wins and five pole positions at the circuit north of San Francisco.
“I have to say it is a pretty good track for me,” Power said. “Definitely in terms of getting it done well there over the years. Obviously it changes every year, cars change and people come back and the competition is always different.
“Done my homework, very determined to win the championship obviously. To do that I think we need to win the race and give it our best shot if Simon has a straightforward day.”
Missing the opener and having a pair of early poor finishes had Power off the radar, in 12th place in the championship after seven races. Then he went on a tear, finishing first or second in six straight races. Winning the championship now would be very gratifying.
“It’s a surprise to me just how I felt at the beginning of the year, how I felt that I would even be here,” Power said. “I really was just struggling along those first few races and it would be such a great feeling to win this championship, honestly.
“It would be a better feeling than my first championship, really.”
Pagenaud warned that he won’t play it conservative, even though a finish of fourth or better guarantees his first championship.
“I’m not going to play defensive, I’ve got to have my destiny in my own hands,” Pagenaud said.
Practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma begins Friday. Qualifying airs live at 6 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Race coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.