David Turner writes from the USA and reflects on the Verizon IndyCar Series title fight at Sonoma……
It all comes down to the final race – again. Saturday in Sonoma saw Verizon Indy Car Series points leader Josef Newgarden withstand constant pressure from his nearest championship competitors, setting a track record to win the Verizon P1 Award in GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma qualifying.
Newgarden earned his first pole of the season and second of his six-year career with a scintillating last lap of 1 minute, 15.5205 seconds (113.691 mph) on Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile, 12-turn permanent road course. The championship bonus point Newgarden collected for winning the pole stretched his advantage to four points over Scott Dixon heading into Sunday’s season finale that offers double race points.
It set up the dramatic run for the pole. Newgarden – the only Team Penske driver to use a new set of the Firestone alternate tires in the first round – was quickest in the Firestone Fast Six with another lap record completed on a used set of red-sidewall alternates despite his teammates each having a new set of the softer alternates at their disposal.
“We were behind the eight ball there, for sure, after the first round,” Newgarden said. “We made the best decision we could as a group. There was no way we couldn’t run the reds (in first-round qualifying) because we just had no idea what people were going to run.
For Dixon he scrapped though the first round of qualifying at a track where the Chevy aero kit seems to have the upper hand over the Honda set up. He did make it to the final section in qualifying the fast six, which was a positive sign apart from the gang of Penske drivers up front “The car was kind of decent to drive, but just couldn’t carry the speed through the corners,” said Dixon, seeking his fifth Verizon Indy Car Series championship. A win Sunday would accomplish the feat.
“Good to make it through to where we did,” Dixon added. “It was definitely hard work, a big credit to the team. Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there. I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race (and the championship). Definitely you’d want to be a little further up, but that’s the way it goes.”
The starting order for the race and the grid for the last race of the championship season looked like this and with that the die was set for the one race shoot out for the championship title.
1. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:15.5205 (113.691)
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:15.5556 (113.638)
3. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:15.6356 (113.518)
4. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:15.8032 (113.267)
5. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:16.2208 (112.646)
6. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 01:16.3978 (112.385)
7. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:16.1815 (112.705)
8. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:16.1934 (112.687)
9. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:16.1968 (112.682)
10. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 01:16.5811 (112.116)
11. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:16.8221 (111.765)
12. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 01:16.9718 (111.547)
13. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 01:17.1016 (111.360)
14. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 01:16.7581 (111.858)
15. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 01:17.1417 (111.302)
16. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:16.9539 (111.573)
17. (20) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:17.2662 (111.122)
18. (19) Ed Jones, Honda, 01:17.0231 (111.473)
19. (7) Jack Harvey, Honda, 01:17.2722 (111.114)
20. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 01:17.1602 (111.275)
21. (13) Zachary Claman DeMelo, Honda, 01:17.2814 (111.100)
22. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 01:17.2507 (111.145)
Sunday dawned a great sunny warm morning clearing skies after early morning fog and an atmosphere you could cut a knife though as everyone along the paddock area could sense there was to be a lot on the line today. The morning warm up pretty much went in a flash with nothing major to report. Newgarden looking calm and busy taking selfies in the pit lane before jumping in the car, Dixon had a slightly concerned look but proved to be very fast in the session.
A few hours later and it was race time, the anthems played, the driver intros happened and the day time fireworks went with a bang and the then it was game time 85 laps and pretty much winner take all.
For Team Penske, it was to become the perfect day. Simon Pagenaud won the race to conclude the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Teammate Josef Newgarden finished second to wrap up the championship.
Pagenaud, the 2016 champion driving the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet, beat Newgarden to the finish line by 1.0986 seconds to win the 85-lap race at Sonoma Raceway. It was the Frenchman’s 11th career victory and second straight on the 2.385-mile, 12-turn permanent road course. A year ago, Pagenaud won from the pole position at Sonoma to sew up his first championship. It did manage to get a little tense when after the last batch of pit stops came and the NO 1 car took the lead as Newgarden looked to have a shot of passing him but was reminded via team radio to be smart and smart he was.
He clinched his first title and the $1 million champion’s prize by finishing second in the race. The 26-year-old Tennessean held off Pagenaud by 13 points in the final standings to become the first American driver to win the championship since Ryan Hunter-Reay five years ago. If ever Indy Car needed to sell the series within its own country yet again the have the most ideal way to do it and market this new champ.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said Newgarden, the driver of the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet who made his 100th career start today. “It was all year and it took a lot to make it happen. Thank you to my teammates. They were giving me a lot of help to make sure we got this done. It’s a huge team effort at Team Penske.
“To finally get it done is a dream come true.”
The championship is the 15th for Team Penske, the most decorated team in Indy car history. Newgarden joins the likes of Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr., Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr., Will Power and Pagenaud as Team Penske drivers to win an Indy car title.
“I’ve had so many great drivers, and as I said, I don’t have a favorite,” team owner Roger Penske said. “I can’t compare (Newgarden) to anyone exactly. He’s an American, which is special in this sport because many of the other drivers have come from overseas and different parts of the world. To see Josef kind of take this route and be at the top right now is pretty exciting.”
The race ran caution-free for the first time in Sonoma Raceway history, which now spans 14 Indy car events. Newgarden and Pagenaud each led 41 laps. Pagenaud opted for a four-stop strategy to Newgarden’s three pit stops, but the Frenchman made up the extra time in pit lane by turning faster laps on an open track.
Pagenaud completed all 2,331 laps this season, becoming just the second driver to finish every lap in a season. Tony Kanaan was the first, when he completed all 3,305 laps when he won the 2004 championship.
“We did what we had to do,” Pagenaud said. “We tried. We won the race; it wasn’t enough. It’s a whole championship. You’ve got to be strong in every race and I guess Josef was a little stronger this year, so we’ll come back. Thirteen points. Next year we’ll come back and give him a hell of a competition again.”
Power, the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, gave Team Penske a race podium sweep by placing third in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske. Scott Dixon finished fourth in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing to clinch third in the standings, 23 points behind Newgarden. It is the 11th time in his 17-year career that Dixon, a four-time champion, has finished in the top three in points. The kiwi may not have won the title but by heck his stats are so impressive, 11 times in the top 3 at a season end just for starters wow. Big points lost at both Indy and Texas were without a doubt the areas where it perhaps got away from the very likeable kiwi. Speaking after the race Dixon said “It just seems like the No. 3 car covered us. Every time we short-pitted they followed us and he was just a massive roadblock. Once we got into clean air, we were able to make up ground, but every time we got into traffic we got real loose. Huge credit to everyone on the NTT Data crew obviously not the way we wanted to finish. A big congrats to Penske and Josef (Newgarden) on a job well done.”
Speaking of number 3 Helio Castroneves wrapped up fourth in the standings by finishing fifth in the race driving the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. Completing his 20th year racing Indy cars, the 42-year-old Brazilian is still in search of his first series championship.
By finishing third in the race, Power – the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion – earned fifth place in the standings.
In what really became a rather uneventful race it had plenty in it as the power of four Penske cars took on the lone Ganassi entry.
In the recent days since the event so much has happened, Castroneves tested the Penske sports car the very next day across the other side of the country in Florida and there is still some talk of him remaining in IndyCar full time and that announcement will come in the next few weeks. TK confirmed the move to A.J. Foyt racing for 2018 so someone (Daly or Munoz) wont be staying there, Sato was officially confirmed at Rahal Letterman Racing for next season, it’s a shame he wont be at Andretti Autosport in 2018 to build on a great year in 2017 and then the Ganassi news of Wednesday 20th of only two full time cars in 2018 for Dixon stays while the others have either moved on or gone and Brendon Hartley making it an all kiwi line up next season – well watch that space but the rumours are very strong that’s for sure. Ganassi saying on Wednesday its time to get back to running two strong entries and running them well. I think there is more to come in this story yet that’s for sure.
So recapping the race this is how it finished up.
1. (3) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 85, Running
2. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 85, Running
3. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 85, Running
4. (6) Scott Dixon, Honda, 85, Running
5. (4) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 85, Running
6. (9) Graham Rahal, Honda, 85, Running
7. (11) Marco Andretti, Honda, 85, Running
8. (7) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 85, Running
9. (10) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 85, Running
10. (13) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 85, Running
11. (15) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 85, Running
12. (14) Max Chilton, Honda, 85, Running
13. (17) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 84, Running
14. (20) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 84, Running
15. (22) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 84, Running
16. (12) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 84, Running
17. (21) Zachary Claman DeMelo, Honda, 84, Running
18. (19) Jack Harvey, Honda, 84, Running
19. (18) Ed Jones, Honda, 69, Off Course
20. (5) Takuma Sato, Honda, 62, Off Course
21. (8) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 60, Running
22. (16) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 52, Electrical
Winner’s average speed: 104.968 mph
Time of Race: 1:55:52.6840
Margin of victory: 1.0986 seconds
Lead changes: 6 among 3 drivers
Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Newgarden 642, Pagenaud 629, Dixon 621, Castroneves 598, Power 562, Rahal 522, Rossi 494, Sato 441, Hunter-Reay 421, Kanaan 403.
Coming soon I will review the 2017 season and look back at some of the stand outs of the great season it was and now we count down to 2018. Ganassi already back into it this weekend with an official test planned with the 2018 aero kit.