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Pagenaud dominates Sonoma Grand Prix
Indy Race 9-18-16 076
Simon Pagenaud leads the Sonoma IndyCar race. - photo by Photo by Jessica McAnnelly

SONOMA — Simon Pagenaud put an exclamation mark on his extraordinary 2016 season by driving to a commanding win in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the season finale for the Verizon IndyCar series, 

The victory was his fifth of the season and ninth of his career, but more importantly it clinched the 2016 IndyCar championship for the 32-year-old Frenchman.

Pagenaud entered the race with a 43 point advantage over his Team Penske teammate Will Power, of Australia, the only other driver remaining in the hunt for the title. Even with double points on the line in the season finale, Pagenaud needed only to finish in the top five to lock up the title.

Pagenaud earned the pole for the 85-lap race in Saturday’s qualifying, which was dominated by Team Penske, leading fellow teammates, Helio Castroneves, Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, in a sweep of the top four positions in the 22-car field.

Pagenaud held a commanding 12 second lead over Power when the race and championship took a dramatic turn as Power slowed to a stop on lap 38 with a gearbox issue causing the only yellow-caution of the race.

Power, the 2014 series champion, was eventually able to return to the track seven laps down, dashing his 2016 championship aspirations.

Pagenaud and the other leaders took advantage of the caution to pit, but the premature pit stop forced Pagenaud to conserve fuel for the remainder of the race in order to make it to the finish on just three stops. 

He made his final stop on lap 61 and once again his pit crew was flawless getting him back on the track in second place behind Castroneves who was a on a four stop strategy.

Castroneves made his final stop on lap 68 handing the lead back to Pagenaud who was now being stalked by Graham Rahal.

Although Rahal would use every weapon in his arsenal to get by Pagenaud in the final laps, he was never able to get close enough to make a pass for the lead and was forced to settle for second place 3.25 seconds behind the Pagenaud.

“This is unbelievable. I don’t think it will sink in until tomorrow. I have so much emotion right now I can’t find the words,” said a jubilant Pagenaud. “What a race! To run up front like that when I needed it was amazing.” 

Although he fell just short of winning Rahal was pleased with his effort. 

“It has been a weird year. It has really had its ups and downs,” reflected Rahal. “I am proud of the team and it is really good to go into the off season on a high note.”

Montoya, who was rumored to have run his final race for Team Penske, finished in third, while Ryan Hunter-Reay came home fourth and Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi rounded out the top five, clinching rookie of the year honors in the process. 

Despite finishing a disappointing 20th Power managed to just edge out Castroneves for second in the championship.

“It was obviously frustrating to have that gearbox problem, but Simon would have been extremely difficult to catch even if things went well,” said Power. “I am happy for Simon though even though I came in second to him. He has really come into his own. It just seemed to be his season. He did everything well all year.”

Roger Penske, who now has a record 187 wins and 14 championships as an owner, was proud of the progress Pagenaud made in just his second year with the team.

“He dug deep all year and came up with a great win for the team today,” said Penske. “You can see how good this team is and I am really proud of them.” 

While celebrating in victory lane Pagenaud tried to put into words what this moment meant to him 

“I don’t think it will sink in until tomorrow. I have so much emotion right now I can’t find the words. I started racing at age seven and my whole career has been getting to this moment. Today I achieved my dream!”