SONOMA, Calif. — A season that began with so much parity as the first seven races had seven different winners, the Verizon IndyCar Series ended with the most familiar of all storylines as Team Penske won its 15th IndyCar Series National Championship.
This time, it was first-year Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden that claimed the title with a second-place finish to his teammate and 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The race was contested without a caution and the biggest drama came when Pagenaud came onto pit road for lap 10 – choosing a four-stop strategy. By getting out of sequence to the other contenders, Pagenaud was able to “gas it” and built up leads of over 30 seconds throughout the race.
On Lap 65, the two drivers came together on the track after Pagenaud made his final pit stop and pulled out just in front of the charging Newgarden on the track.
To the amazement of many, Newgarden raced hard and aggressively trying to pass Pagenaud for the lead, even though he would clinch the championship by finishing third or higher.
“It was my instinct,” Newgarden said. “My instinct when I saw him was I’m going to beat him, and that’s just my — honestly that’s my natural instinct inside the car is just to beat whoever is in front of me. That’s what I felt like. I was on reds, he was out of the pits, he was like weak prey in front of me, so I’m going to get him. But I also tried to measure it the way I was doing it. I didn’t want to do something silly.
“And then obviously the more that that lap progressed, Tim (Cindric, Team Penske President and Newgarden’s race strategist) was very vocal and coaching me through it and telling me, this is the situation.
“It made a lot of sense in my mind when he was over the radio, so I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Tim for keeping me in check and making sure that I was thinking correctly this whole weekend and certainly in that moment.
“I think it’s fitting, it’s great for us that another car won the race, part of our team, so you’ve got a team car winning the race, you’ve got a team car winning the championship. We’re all really winning this weekend. It takes a group to make this happen, and it’s taken all four of these teams to bring a championship together, so it’s a group effort.”
Newgarden settled in and finished 1.0986 seconds behind Pagenaud, who won his second race of the season and at Sonoma for the second year in a row.
But it wasn’t enough to win the championship as Newgarden’s championship margin was 13 points over the race winner, who entered the race fourth in points, 34 out of the lead in the double-points paying race.
“I think what is important to me is to perform at your best in those conditions,” Pagenaud said. “I think to me, the final champion is someone that can bring his A game or extra A game on a given time. I thought we did just that today as a team, myself as a driver, my engineer, my strategist, my guys, my crew in the pit stops. I think we did just that.
“When I look at Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and all these guys that really — obviously, those guys are Formula 1 drivers, but think about some IndyCar drivers, Franchitti, these guys, when you think about these guys that have really marked the sport, the sport in general, Motorsports, I think today was one of those days for us.
“It was very special to me. Of course, we’re not champions, we came up short by 13 points after a whole season. Am I satisfied? No, because I want to win, but we gave everything we had.
“For me to finish 13 points behind in a season where we had a lot of downs, not as many ups compared to last year, I think it’s quite impressive. So, I’m very happy with that.”