SONOMA, California — Team Penske’s brain trust had discussed this possible scenario before Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. But for a few anxious moments, Josef Newgarden couldn’t resist the urge to try to pass teammate Simon Pagenaud.
“My instinct when I saw him is I want to beat him,” Newgarden said of a brief Lap 65 duel for the lead with his teammate and the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
Legendary team owner Roger Penske peered into a race monitor and nervously watched Newgarden aggressively steer his No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet into a brief side-by-side showdown with Pagenaud’s No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet.
“I knew they were going to have a conversation,” Penske said of Newgarden and his race strategist, Tim Cindric, the Team Penske president.
Cindric’s reminder was initially succinct about the most important priority: winning the series title.
“Be smart,” he radioed Newgarden. “You’re not racing him for the championship right now.”
But the message had to be repeated to the hard-charging, 26-year-old Tennessean.
“The more that lap progressed,” Newgarden said, “Tim was more vocal about coaching me through it.”
Newgarden reluctantly relented, settled for second place in the race behind Pagenaud and celebrated his first series title in his initial year with Team Penske.
“The good thing about him is he listens,” Cindric said of Newgarden. “If you have to push ‘em forward, you never get to the front. Pulling ‘em back is all right.”
After the giant Korbel champagne bottles had been popped, celebrations eventually quieted and Team Penske’s leadership reflected on its latest accomplishment as the sun set on the hills of wine country. Cindric conceded the race’s key moment probably became too dramatic.
“Maybe they got a little too close there,” Cindric said.
Newgarden was on warm tires and had the push-to-pass seconds to pull off the move. Pagenaud had just exited the pits and was on cold tires.
But rather than risk an incident that could wreck the team's championship plans, smarter minds prevailed. Newgarden finished 13 points ahead of Pagenaud in the final standings. Four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing ended up third, 21 points back. The Team Penske tandem of Helio Castroneves and Will Power came in fourth and fifth.
Penske and Cindric had strategized just about every scenario after their four drivers earned the fastest qualifying spots on Saturday. Newgarden started on the pole and was dominant early. Pagenaud agreed before the race to pit early and, according to plan, stick to a four-stop plan that would allow him to run quicker laps in more open space on the 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway permanent road course.
Power, the 2014 series champion, would stay with Newgarden as his wing man. In another indication of the team being most important, a few members of Power’s crew were shifted to Newgarden’s team for this race. Castroneves was entrusted with keeping Dixon from pushing the leaders.
“You saw the strategy where we had one car come in early,” Penske said. “We had it figured out. We had to do so in case there was a yellow, we had it covered. (Pagenaud) was the one to do that. We stayed on plan. Helio kept Dixon behind him until that last step there and we knew (Dixon) would be tight on fuel.”
Cindric recalled being on the other end of plans not panning out at Sonoma before, so he sounded as relieved as he was satisfied about everything going to plan. Penske was asked about celebrating the team’s 15th driver championship.
“I need to go for 16, don’t I?” he said.
He certainly has the talented drivers to add more trophies to the museum. And as this day reminded, those drivers understand the importance of putting Team Penske first.
“I don’t have a favorite driver,” Penske said. “Quite honestly, this is a perfect ending to a great season.”