SONOMA, Calif. — Roger Penske stood in celebration, once again, in what was not just a championship coronation of a driver but a reaffirmation of dominance for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ greatest team.
Just before Simon Pagenaud was introduced as the series champion after his victory in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Penske succinctly reiterated what this meant for a Hall of Fame owner who has accomplished so much in his legendary lifetime.
“Each one, the next one, is the best,” Penske said of the team’s 14th Indy car title and 187th race victory.
His modest grin was familiar, the facial expression one of contentment. The 50th anniversary season of a storied racing history reminded “The Captain” still possesses the same motivation as his drivers, who won 10 of 16 races this year. At 79, Penske shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’m going to do this as long as I can,” he said, “as long as I can get to the track.”
A confetti cannon unloaded. Champagne sprayed. Another year-end Penske party had officially started. Teammates and rivals alike offered their congratulations.
“It’s something you’re always trying to give the boss,” said Team Penske president Tim Cindric.
Now that this season had concluded, it could be stressed with more feeling, how this year meant so much more because of the anniversary and because last year was unfulfilling in too many ways. Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya lost the series title to Scott Dixon by virtue of a wins tiebreaker at the same Sonoma track. And while Montoya delivered in the most important race for Penske’s 16th Indianapolis 500 victory, the team’s cars won just three races all of 2015. In the first season of his dream ride, Pagenaud was winless. So, too, was three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
On Sunday, order as the most successful Indy car racing team seems it had been restored. Penske swept the top three points positions with Pagenaud, Will Power and Castroneves.
“To do this in his 50th anniversary, it’s huge for us, and to come in here and pull off a 1-2-3 (in points) today makes it even more special,” Cindric said. “It’s a big deal for us. After last year, we had to make sure we executed this year.
“It puts a little extra pressure on the beginning of the year to say all the things we needed to do and what we have done and we needed to continue adding to that legacy. Today, we added something to that legacy.”
Pagenaud ensured that with his fifth win of a breakthrough season. The 32-year-old Frenchman had improved his advantage on Power, the only other driver who had a mathematical chance to win the series title, by claiming his seventh pole position of the year on Saturday.
Power, a points runner-up for the fourth time, gave Penske his previous series title in 2014. Before that, the team last celebrated like this in 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr. A pattern of gaps between the parties reminded that Penske winning everything all the time is never been a given.
Tom Sneva won the first series titles in 1977 and ‘78, 11 years after Penske got started. Rick Mears strung together three crowns in 1979, ‘81 and ‘82. Al Unser prevailed in 1983 and ‘85, Danny Sullivan in 1988, Al Unser Jr. in 1994 and Gil de Ferran in 2000 and 2001.
“You can’t win on your press clippings,” Penske reminded. “I learned that a long time ago. You’ve got to be strong, be able to go out front and make it happen.”
He surveyed a Victory Lane with so many happy faces and added, “It’s just a great day.”
Penske was also proud of another statement confirmed under the setting California sun. He had remained convinced that Pagenaud could become a champion, even after the driver finished a distant 11th in points last year.
“The 50th anniversary is so special and to see him dominate the series the way he did with five wins and seven pole positions, and how his team really executed, it’s a credit to not only Simon, but the guys who are around him on that team and our engineering group,” Penske said. “We’ve got a great operation here. I think it took him one year to kind of get on the team with us and understand the transparency. From that point on, he just went straight to the top.”
Pagenaud and engineer Ben Bretzman insisted they never lost confidence despite the humbling 2015 results. Whereas Pagenaud had won four races in the previous two seasons, his best finish was a pair of thirds a year ago. Penske and Cindric continued to reiterate their faith in the No. 22 Chevrolet driver and team.
“We don’t just get drivers, turn ‘em around and dump ‘em,” Penske said. “He certainly had the speed and the capability when we hired him. It was a matter of getting him settled down. You’ve got to understand getting used to the team, what we do. At the end of the day, you could see he executes.
“We picked the right guy, for sure. We have a long-term asset here.”
This latest Penske party had yet to end, and the man behind yet another success story already sounded like he was looking forward to 2017.