SONOMA, California — A picturesque backdrop in the rolling hills of wine country brought out the bubbly nature in Verizon IndyCar Series defending champion Simon Pagenaud.
“Is the wine good?” the smiling Frenchman asked on a sun-splashed Wednesday afternoon at Ram’s Gate Winery, which sits atop a hill overlooking Sonoma Raceway – site of the 2017 season finale.
It was as if the top five points drivers entering Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma took a moment to bask in the glow of a 28-acre estate which prides itself in growing seven grape varieties to produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
But these fast-five racers weren’t just enjoying the whiff of wine. Each smells a championship after enduring the highs and lows of 16 races to reach a double-points season finale.
Seven drivers have a mathematical shot at the title, but everyone is chasing points leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske. He’s had the best year so far with a career-best four wins. The 26-year-old Tennessean has a lot to smile about in his quest for a first series title.
If anyone sounded as upbeat as Pagenaud, it was Newgarden.
Newgarden and Pagenaud took their places around the Astor Cup for a picture, joined by teammates Helio Castroneves and 2014 series champion Will Power. But one driver was missing — four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing.
“Scott, you can stay over there,” a smiling Newgarden said to Dixon, who stood off in the distance laughing before joining the group for the photo at top. “Let’s do this without Scott.”
All pleasantries aside, having so many in the hunt for a title makes this set stage undeniably intriguing.
“This year, it’s crazy,” Pagenaud said. “It’s very exciting for everybody because, yeah, you don’t know who’s going to take (the championship) in the end.”
Dixon is just three points behind Newgarden. Known as “The Iceman” for his calm and cool demeanor under pressure, the New Zealander stuck to his persona. He didn’t disguise his disappointment in winning only one race this year thus far and not prevailing at least three or four other times, but Dixon acknowledged the stage is set for a dramatic conclusion.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “It’s how you want the championship, to come down to the wire, for the fans and everybody involved. It’s definitely exciting for us. I’d much prefer coming to the last race having already sewn up the championship or having a big points advantage.”
Dixon won his previous titles in 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2015. He’s also been a runner-up twice and finished third four times.
“I would never underestimate Scott at the end of the day,” Newgarden (left) said.
“Having Scott there throws a curveball into our team,” Castroneves said of the Penske bottom line that one of their drivers must be crowned.
Castroneves, in third place just 22 points back, has won three Indianapolis 500s and 30 races in a celebrated 20-year Indy car career, but a series title has eluded him. True to his optimistic nature, he smiles when that question gets asked for seemingly the thousandth time.
His face turns more serious but he doesn’t lose focus on what’s most important when asked yet again about the uncertainty of what or for whom he’ll be racing next season.
“I feel like I’m ready to win the championship,” he said. “That’s how I feel.”
That’s why they’ve come to California. Each justifiably is confident they can accomplish their end game.
Last year, Pagenaud and Power entered Sonoma Raceway as the only drivers in contention to win the championship. Pagenaud won the race from the pole to accomplish his “lifetime dream.” He expressed pride in the fact that his winning car is now in Hall of Fame team owner Roger Penske’s museum.
But as Pagenaud -- currently fourth in points, 34 behind -- has since learned and Power reminded, the euphoria of such success doesn’t last forever. As soon as the next season starts, a driver yearns to win the championship again. Power realized this obsession in 2015, when he tried to repeat but came in third. The Australian’s runner-up finish a year ago was the fourth time he’s been second.
“At the time (you win the championship), it’s very satisfying, and satisfying for about a year,” said Power, who is 68 points behind Newgarden in fifth place. “Then you want it again.
“It doesn’t change anything. I still want to win another one just as bad. It’s not like you can say, ‘Well, I’m done.’”
That’s why so many of the usual suspects are preparing to push the limit once more in hopes of making this visit to wine country memorable.
“Coming down to the last race, everybody is going to be super aggressive,” Pagenaud said. “No mercy this weekend.”
Alexander Rossi (84 points out of first place) and Graham Rahal (94 out of first) remain mathematical longshots as well for the championship, which will be decided live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday.