Sonoma, Calif – It’s hard to believe, but the checkered flag has now flown on the 17th and final Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season. Simon Pagenaud used great strategy to win Sunday’s Go Pro Grand Prix at Sonoma, but it wasn’t enough to win the 2017 championship. That distinction went to his Team Penske teammate of Josef Newgarden.
With that being said, here are the main takeaways from Sunday’s race.
Simon Pagenaud knew from the start that if the race played out the way it was going, he wasn’t going to have a chance to win this year’s championship. He entered the day 35 points back and knew that while he was running fourth, he had to do something different. The Frenchman would pit earlier than anyone else on Lap 12 and that move proved to be the winning one for his No. 1 Chevrolet.
By time the other leaders hit pit road, Pagenaud would take over the lead and have a seven second advantage. By Lap 29, Pagenaud had caught Tony Kanaan to put him a lap down. Instead of having Kanaan slow him up, he hit pit road a bit early.
Again, a race winning move.
When Newgarden and Will Power pit on Lap 40, Pagenaud took the lead back over and this time, he had a 25+ second lead. He would be pushing too hard and would briefly go off course twice on Lap 48 as he was coming to pit lane, and come out 7.5-seconds back in third place. But, Pagenaud cut that deficit down to a second before Newgarden would pit again, and when he took over the lead for the final time on Lap 62, he was over 30-seconds up. That allowed Pagenaud to pit on Lap 64 and hold off Newgarden for the victory, his second straight at Sonoma. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t enough to win the title.
You can’t have this list and not bring up the championship. The race was a battle of strategy and pace by Newgarden and Pagenaud which also was the key to the title. They finished 1-2 in the race and 1-2 in the championship, just in reverse order than the other.
Newgarden, becomes the youngest series champion at 26 years old since Jacques Villeneuve in 1995. He also gives Penske their second straight championship and third in the last four years. But, from 1995-2013, Penske had just two titles (2000 Gil De Ferran, 2006 Sam Hornish Jr). So, while this may be a dominating stretch lately, nabbing 15 championship trophies overall, it hasn’t been all that great if you go back two decades.
The Tennessee native also becomes just the second American champion in the series over the last 15 years. Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 was the other. You have to go back to Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, 2002, 2006) and Buddy Lazier (2000) as the only other Americans to win the title this century.
Penske Sweeps The Podium
For the first time in four years, a team swept the podium in an INDYCAR race. The last time it happened was in 2013 when Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti went 1-2-3 at Pocono. The last time before that was Penske and coincidentally enough it was at Sonoma in 2011 (Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe). Those are the only two times since 2006 that this has happened. In fact, this feat has happened just 12 times in series history. Penske has done it nine of them.
Penske also qualified 1-2-3-4 and was running there for most of Sunday’s race. Scott Dixon got around Castroneves on the final pit sequence to finish fourth while Castroneves came home fifth. The last and only time a team went 1-2-3-4 was when Andretti Autosport did it at St. Pete in 2005.
Penske drivers also combined to lead 82 of the 85 laps on Sunday.
Simon Pagenaud Completes 100-Percent Of The Season Laps/Improves From Last Year
How can a driver improve from in almost every stat from a championship winning year last season and not win the next? Pagenaud had 10 top fives last year and finished with 13 this season. He had 13 top 10’s last year and 15 in 2017.
On top of that, Pagenaud became just the second driver ever to complete 100-percent of the overall laps in the season. Tony Kanaan in 2004 was the other.
The Frenchman also had 10 straight top 10’s to close out the season, nine of which in the top five.
But, Pagenaud was on the losing end of the championship by 13 points. That’s how harsh this series can be.
Helio Castroneves/Scott Dixon Finish In Top 10 In All But 1 Race
Like Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon had great seasons. Each had 16 top 10 finishes in 17 races this season. They finished fourth and fifth respectively on Sunday. Unfortunately, that consistency wasn’t enough to win them a championship.
Each only had one victory compared to Newgarden’s four.
Conor Daly/Marco Andretti Strong Finishes
Conor Daly said that the two test sessions at Mid-Ohio and Gateway turned this teams season around. Stats show that too. Since Mid-Ohio in July, Daly had four top 11 finishes over the final five races of the season. He had just one in the first 12 races this year.
The team clearly found something, as Daly finished 10th, 14th, fifth, 11th and 10th respectively. He even led three laps on Sunday, the first three of the season for AJ Foyt Racing. It was a great audition for Daly to return to this No. 4 Chevrolet for 2018.
Marco Andretti also finished strong. Over the last six races, Andretti had four top 12 finishes. He just had four in the opening 11 races this year.
Andretti, finished fourth at Toronto, 12th at Mid-Ohio, 11th at Pocono and now seventh at Sonoma to close out the season. If not for Graham Rahal getting by him towards the end of the race, he would have been the top non championship contender in the finishing order.
For the second time of the season, the race went caution free. The only other was at Indy for the INDYCAR Grand Prix back in May. But, other than a caution free race at Long Beach in 2016, the last time this happened was in 2012 and again in 2013 at Mid-Ohio. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that natural road courses have produced three of the last four caution free races over the last five years.
We may see four Penske drivers in the top five of the final standings, but there were four teams overall in the top 10. On top of that, we saw 10 different race winners in 17 races as well as nine different pole winners.