SONOMA — Team Penske turned in yet another dominant performance at Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the season finale for the IndyCar Series, as Simon Pagenaud won the race and Josef Newgarden captured the 2017 championship with his second place finish.
“This is so cool. I am so proud of my team, said Newgarden, age 26 of Nashville, TN. “To final get this done is a dream come true. It is just awesome.”
Team Penske’s quartet of drivers earned the top four starting spots in Saturday’s qualifying with Newgarden capturing the pole, followed by Will Power, Pagenaud and 20-year veteran Helio Castroneves.
Newgarden, who replaced Juan Montoya at Team Penske this season, also entered the weekend with a razor thin 3 point lead in the season standings over Team Ganassi’s Scott Dixon, who was seeking his fifth championship, which increased to 4 points with his pole. His three teammates were the only other contenders for the title.
With the race going caution free for the entire 85 lap distance, the outcome was ultimately decided on pit strategy. While Power, Newgarden, Castroneves and most of the other contenders opted for the standard three pit stops, Pagenaud and team strategist Tim Cindric decided to go with a four stop strategy, which allows a driver to be more aggressive by having fresher tires and not having to stretch fuel mileage.
Newgarden used his pole position to jump into the early race lead with Power, Castroneves and Pagenaud all in close pursuit. Pagenaud dropped off the pace when he pitted on lap 15, but held a 15 second lead on lap 30 after the others made their first pit stops 10 to 12 laps later.
The leap frogging of positions continued until Pagenaud made his fourth and final stop on lap 64. He emerged from the pits just ahead of Newgarden, but with cold tires which have less grip until they reach race temperatures.
Newgarden made several attempts to get by his teammate until Cindric got on the radio and firmly reminded him that that he didn’t need to win the race to win the championship.
“He was on cold tires and was weak prey, but it became harder to get by as we progressed and his tires warmed,” said Newgarden. “I give Tim credit for keeping me in check and focusing on the big picture.”
The two held their positions to the checkered flag while Power took the third spot on the podium. Dixon beat out Castroneves for fourth to spoil a Team Penske sweep.
“I’m exhausted. That was as hard as I could drive for 85 laps,” said Pagenaud, the defending IndyCar champion. “We did everything we could do, but it just wasn’t enough to win the championship. I want to congratulate Josef on an amazing year.”
It was the 15th IndyCar championship and the 197th victory for Team Penske.
“It is always a team effort here and this was great for the team,” said Roger Penske. “I couldn’t be prouder of what we have accomplished.”
Joining Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012, Newgarden is only the second American to win the IndyCar championship in the last 11 years.
The final IndyCar standings show Newgarden with 642 points, Pagenaud with 629, Dixon with 621, Castroneves at 598 and Power with 562.
It was another disappointing finish for Castroneves who has won three Indy 500s, but never a season championship. In addition, it may be his last try at the title with rumors swirling that Roger Penske will be moving him to his sport car program next season.
“Let’s see what is going to happen,” said Castroneves resolutely. “Right now I want to celebrate Josef’s championship. I feel I am a part of it.”
Asked if he would trade one of his Indy 500 wins for a championship Castroneves quickly replied with a big smile, “Heck no! I worked too hard for those. And I plan on getting at least one more.”