Apparently someone forgot to tell Simon Pagenaud that there was a championship showdown between him and his Penske teammate Will Power in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
Instead of the anticipated title battle, the 32-year-old French driver put the bit between his teeth and completely dominated the 85-lap race in California to capture his first Verizon IndyCar Series title.
“What I'm thinking about right now is it's been a long career,” said a triumphant Pagenaud, who started from pole and was never seriously threatened in the race on the picturesque 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway road course.
“You start (racing), 7 years old. You go through a lot. I remember my first race in France in a go-kart. It was raining. I had my visor open because I had the wrong helmet. I still have that picture at home. The ground I covered since is quite incredible.”
It was a huge turnaround for the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet driver who departed Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for Team Penske in 2015 with high expectations in tow and finished a disappointing 11th in the standings with only two podiums for third.
A year later, Pagenaud silenced critics with three wins in the first five races and leading the points table from the second race on.
“It was unfair to imagine a transition would be that easy, especially with a new team,” said Pagenaud, who ended 2016 with a series-high five victories.
“It's just like a football team. You have to make that chemistry, make sure that the chemistry is going to be the best. It took me a while to get used to my new environment and know what I could do and could not do.”
The title fight officially ended on Lap 36 when 2014 champion Power's clutch control unit failed and wouldn't allow the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet driver to select gears. It needed eight laps for repairs.
With his only challenger out of contention, Pagenaud could have pulled over and celebrated, but instead delivered a combination of speed and fuel economy that no other driver could match.
While the gremlins in Power's car helped, Pagenaud really didn't need it on the 11-turn track nestled in Northern California wine country. When the pair was battling on track early in the race, Pagenaud pulled out a comfortable 10-second lead on Power before the trouble hit the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
It was the fourth time in Power's career that he went into the season finale as one of the top title contenders, only to leave empty-handed.
“Another second place,” joked Power who went into the finale with a shot at his second championship despite missing the first race of the year.
“Honestly, it was still a very strong year. Four race wins, I won a 500-mile race (ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway). Not the right one (Indianapolis 500), but still a 500-miler. I think Simon was going to be tough to beat as far as the championship goes. Maybe we could have beaten him for the win, but I doubt it if everything just played out as it was.”
Further back in the field, No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet driver Helio Castroneves worked hard to make a four-stop strategy deliver the points he needed to make it a Team Penske 1-2-3 in the championship standings. After he pitted for the fourth time with 15 laps to go, Castroneves dropped from first to eighth, but his seventh at the checkered flag was enough to give owner Roger Penske his top-three sweep.
The top U.S. driver in the final standings was Josef Newgarden, behind the wheel of the No. 21 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka/ECR Chevrolet. He was an impressive fourth overall just ahead of another American driver, Graham Rahal, who rounded out the top five in points.
While all eyes were on the championship, No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda driver Alexander Rossi quietly put in a solid performance at his hometown track in front of about 200 friends and family he brought as guests to add the Sunoco Rookie of the Year crown to his dramatic Indianapolis 500 victory on ethanol fumes in May.
Rossi crossed the line fifth in Sonoma despite running out of fuel on the final lap, coughing across the finish line and losing one place to Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay before making it. The loss of that single spot in the race did cause Rossi to slip from eighth to 11th in the overall championship, indicative of just how tight the series competition was behind Pagenaud.
“It's heartbreaking to (run out of fuel) at the end, but it's weird how this sport works: We won the biggest race of the year the same way,” Rossi said, referring to his surprising triumph in May’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“Huge credit to the team for what we accomplished from (the season opener in) St. Petersburg, where we struggled to stay on the lead lap and with a lot of other things, to where we are now and being at the front, legitimately.”
The California native ended the season with 430 points, 117 ahead of fellow rookie Conor Daly of Dale Coyne Racing. Unfortunately for Daly, his season ended on a disappointing note after an exhaust issue on his No. 18 Jonathan Byrd's Hospitality Honda forced him out after 36 laps.
“A hole in the exhaust system to melt away our hopes of a strong finish,” Daly tweeted while the race continued.
“It's been a true honor to compete in this series, with my team @DaleCoyneRacing against some of the best in the world. So lucky to do this.”