Pagenaud still racing to repeat as champion

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SONOMA, Calif. – “Let’s get it done!”

Those were the words from an emotionally charged Simon Pagenaud, the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion, whose quest for back-to-back titles comes to a head this weekend in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Currently fourth in the overall standings, 34 points behind Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden, Pagenaud’s road to defending his crown has proved to be turbulent, with only one win – at Phoenix Raceway in April – to show for his efforts, compared to five victories last season.

“The number sounds great. It all sounds fantastic, but bigger thing is to look at the situation for myself,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet.

“Just repeating, I’ve never been in that situation before. I’ve won championships and moved on to the next level, so I’ve never been in a repeating situation. Quite frankly, this is the first time in my career I’m there.”

Pagenaud ran second to Newgarden in Friday’s practices at Sonoma Raceway, with a best lap of 1 minute, 16.2871 seconds (112.549 mph). He’ll look to overtake his teammate in qualifying today to earn a crucial championship point in his bid to become the first repeat champion in the series since Dario Franchitti in 2011.

“It’s not easy, let me tell you. It’s a lot harder than I imagined,” Pagenaud admitted. “I thought I was going to have some challenge this year, but somehow I thought because the car didn’t change and the aero (package) is the same, I thought it was going to be a lot more straightforward.

“The reality of it is, last year we had a golden year. I performed really well and the confidence kept going up and up with the results. We found a sweet spot with the car, the tires and the brakes.

“Unfortunately, when the brakes changed at the beginning of the season, I struggled to adapt to it and we struggled to set them up for me. It took us a while to understand that, and the tires have changed a little bit, too. So there are several things that threw us off early in the season.”

Despite just one win to date in 2017, the 33-year-old Frenchman has bettered his total of race finishes in the top five. He has a series-best 12 this season compared to 10 a year ago. Pagenaud is also the only driver to complete all 2,246 laps through the first 16 races.

“I think it’s just qualifying that hasn’t been as good,” said Pagenaud, winner of one pole (Toronto) this season compared to seven last year. “Your race is completely dependent on your performance in qualifying. Everything changes from then on. (My) oval performance has been really good, so a lot of things have improved, but it’s just a different year.

“Repeating, to me, would be a huge accomplishment and it would be two different ways to do it as well. … I don’t know how to explain it, but it would be bigger for me to win the second in a row than winning the first one because I’ve faced so many challenges this year that I didn’t expect and I had to bounce back every time.”

The season finale at Sonoma Raceway was the site of perhaps Pagenaud’s most dominant victory to date. He scored the pole and led 76 of 85 laps en route to the win and championship a year ago. Although that Dallara IR-12 chassis has since been put in the Penske Museum, Pagenaud has faith in chassis No. 42 he is using this weekend. It earned him the Toronto pole and Phoenix win this season.

“The DXC car is a good car,” said Pagenaud. “We’ve had good success in it, that special chassis, because there are two chassis I’ve had all year long and we’ve chosen the chassis that we think may be the good luck one. They are supposed to be the same, but we’ll see.

“Hopefully, it is a good luck one.”

If Pagenaud maximizes his weekend by sitting on pole, winning the race and leading the most laps, Newgarden would still need to finish fourth or worse and Scott Dixon third or lower for the championship repeat to occur. Pagenaud also knows that none of the other title contenders – which also includes teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves – will make it any easier for him.

“I know that Josef is very aggressive, he has been all year, but I know that Will is aggressive and Helio is, too,” Pagenaud said. “And coming down to the last race, everybody is going to be super aggressive.

“I’m going to be. They shouldn’t expect me to open the door. They should expect me to be very aggressive and I’m going to go for the gap if there is a gap.

“No mercy this weekend.”

GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma practice resumes at 2 p.m. ET today (live stream on RaceControl.IndyCar.com). Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying begins at 6:30 p.m. and airs live on NBCSN.

The title-deciding race, 85 laps around the 2.385-mile permanent road course, airs live at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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