Unlike when he finished off a dominant run to the Verizon IndyCar Series championship a year ago, Simon Pagenaud must come from behind to reclaim the Astor Cup in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17.
The Team Penske driver sits fourth, 34 points behind points leader and teammate Josef Newgarden, entering the double-points race on Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile road course. Pagenaud is still optimistic about his chances.
“We had to give a different show to all of you guys, make it more interesting, so we did it a completely different way this year,” Pagenaud said Tuesday. “Quite frankly, we have nothing to lose, which is a very pleasant position to be in.
“All we've got to do is be aggressive and go to the front and try to win the race. It's a very simple way to look at it with not much pressure. The goal is just to be the best you can be on that day and try to win the race.”
Pagenaud led another Team Penske teammate, Will Power, by 44 points before last year’s finale, then won the Sonoma pole and clinched a first series title with his career-best fifth win of the season. Power encountered a clutch control unit malfunction and faded to 20th.
The road to repeat has proven to be more of a challenge. The 33-year-old Frenchman has won only once this season at Phoenix, but stayed in the hunt with a series-leading 12 top-five finishes.
“It's very hard,” he said. “I think it's even harder to repeat, quite frankly. I found myself in a great situation last year with a dominant performance, but repeating is even harder just because you have a baseline of things that worked the year before, and you're hoping it will do the same. But the reality is you have to adapt to situations, and this year has been a very different year for me, which is no real explanation for it, it's just the way it is.
“That's where we are, but the championship this year has been very competitive, multiple (race) winners, a lot more winners than usual, a lot of good luck and bad luck for some, a lot of good cars as well, Honda making a jump compared to last year in terms of performance, so obviously that tightened the ranks between Chevy and Honda and made it possible for a lot more drivers to win.”
The top seven drivers in the points standings are mathematically capable of winning the title. Newgarden, in his first year driving for Team Penske, has put himself in the prime position with a series-best four wins. Four-time series champ Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing is just three points behind. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves is third, 22 points behind.
“I think it's fantastic for the show. It's great for the series,” said Pagenaud, who will drive the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet in the finale. “I think the product that we have right now is phenomenal, and I think it's not the first year it’s happened, but INDYCAR is definitely to me the most exciting sort of racing in the world right now.
“You've got to be there at the right time, and that's where the No. 1 team, we're going to have to bring our top A game to the table that weekend. I'm excited about it. I think it's going to be a great show. It's a great venue, too, to do it.”
A push to the front caused some bitterness two races ago when Newgarden pulled off a daring pass to bump past Pagenaud and win the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois. Pagenaud took issue with Newgarden’s aggressiveness, saying he lost respect for his teammate. Pagenaud has since apologized for his emotional post-race outburst.
The lingering question for Sonoma, with so many title contenders, is how hard will the frontrunners push the issue?
“Quite frankly, it's going to be who makes the best decisions and – that's personally without being pretentious – that's something that I think I do well,” Pagenaud said. “So that's why I think my chances to win this championship are very high. Again, I have to go into Sonoma with a lot of confidence, and that's exactly what I'm going to do, just like I did last year, and may the best win.”
All four Team Penske drivers are participating in a private test at Sonoma today. The entire Verizon IndyCar Series will be at the track a week from today, Sept. 14, for an open test day ahead of the race weekend.
Practices on Sept. 15 begin at 1 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. ET. The second practice airs live on NBCSN from 5-6:30 p.m.
A third practice takes place at 2 p.m. Saturday, ahead of Verizon P1 Award qualifying that airs live at 6:30 p.m. on NBCSN.
Following a final 30-minute warmup practice at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, the 85-lap race to decide the championship airs live at 6:30 p.m. on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio network.