SONOMA (AP) — Team Penske rolled into the title-deciding IndyCar race last season quite confident about its chances to win a championship. The organization had three drivers in contention that day and had led the series standings the entire year.
But nothing went as planned at Sonoma Raceway, where Team Penske choked away the title to Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing.
“It was just such a pity, that we allowed Ganassi to get that title,” Will Power said Friday.
Juan Pablo Montoya had led the standings since the season opening race, but contact Power during the event put Montoya deep in the field and he couldn’t recover against Dixon. Dixon won the race, which is worth double points, and tied Montoya in the final standings. The championship went to Dixon on a tiebreaker.
There will be no such Penske problems this Sunday. No matter what happens, The Captain will hoist the IndyCar championship after the checkered flag.
Only Power and Simon Pagenaud are mathematically eligible to win the title, with Pagenaud holding a 43-point lead over Power in his pursuit of his first title. Power won in 2014 for Penske.
With the threat from outside competition eliminated, each Penske driver is focused only on doing what they need to do Sunday to lock down the title. No matter the final outcome, it’s a win for Roger Penske in the 50th anniversary of the Penske race teams.
“I think it’s a good situation, a great situation,” Power said. “After what happened last year, just no way we could let that happen again. It’s a relief that we can just go and race.”
Pagenaud has been atop the points standings since the second race of this season. Power missed the first race for what seemed to be concussion-like symptoms, but turned out to be only an ear infection.
Power has been climbing out of that early hole all year, and both Penske drivers have won four races.
But the championship, even with double points on the line, is really Pagenaud’s to lose. No matter what Power does Sunday, a finish of sixth or better gives Pagenuad the title.
“I’m in a different position to Will: Will needs to win the race to have a legit chance, really,” Pagenaud said. “We don’t have a big issue. You just race like you usually do. Everybody is going to race like you usually do.”
For Power, any shot at winning the title starts in qualifying Saturday. He wants to win the pole and win the race, both of which are possible.
He’s a three-time winner at Sonoma and has started on the pole in five of the last six IndyCar races here.
But he long ago figured out that worrying about the final results don’t do him any good.
Power was in the thick of the championship race for three consecutive years and came up short each time. The Australian known for over-thinking everything got to a point where he stopped putting winning a title on his list of season goals.
The strategy seemed to loosen him up and he closed the 2013 season with three wins in five races.
So he changed nothing in 2014.
“I think at this point if I hadn’t won one, I probably would have just been like, ‘I’m not going to win one,’ “ Power said. “I said that in ‘14 actually. I went into ‘14, ‘I’m not going to win a championship, so who cares?’
“I just went and raced, and I won one. That’s actually how I approached the beginning of that season, then it started coming together. OK, I get it. Racing gods just want to play with you a little.”
It could play out to be a very big weekend for Penske, who is guaranteed the top two spots on the final podium. But, the team is also in play for a 1-2-3 sweep of the final standings.
Helio Castroneves is tied with Dixon for ranked third in the standings and Josef Newgarden is only five points back. Should Castronenves hold that spot in the points, it would be the first 1-2-3 sweep for Penske since Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy did it in 1994.
But Dixon is motivated to maintain his streak of finishing in the top three in points every year since 2007.
Pagenuad, feeling no pressure, eagerly attacked the weekend with a celebratory mindset for himself and his Penske teammates.
“I don’t feel awkward. I want to be the one winning for sure, and Will does, too,” the French driver said. “It’s great for Team Penske to win, but I do want to get this title. I’m going to embrace the weekend and enjoy it.”