SONOMA, California – So far, Josef Newgarden is standing up tall to the stress of being the championship leader.
Seeking his first Verizon IndyCar Series title, Newgarden withstood intense pressure from his nearest championship competitors today, setting a track record to win the Verizon P1 Award in a thrilling, nail-biting GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma qualifying session.
GOPRO GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA: Qualifying results
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 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.
The pole-winning lap from Newgarden in the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet edged teammate Will Power for qualifying honors. It was the 11th pole position won by a Team Penske driver this season and No. 256 in the iconic team’s Indy car history.
“I was just hoping we could get one of these (Verizon P1 Awards) this year,” said Newgarden, whose only previous pole came at Milwaukee in 2015. “We’ve been close a couple times and a couple places I felt like we had the speed to do it and didn’t get it done.
“It’s cool because this is the Verizon P1 Award and I’ve been driving the hum by Verizon car many races this year, and I haven’t been able to get it in its place.”
Power, fifth in the standings and now 69 points behind Newgarden, ran a best lap of 1:15.5556 (113.638 mph) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet in the Firestone Fast Six, the third and final round of knockout qualifying. The lap fell less than four-hundredths of a second shy of giving Power his 51st career pole and seventh this season.
“You start going back through the lap in your head,” Power said. “I could have just hit the throttle a little earlier there, would have helped me braking actually, push back. It's tight, it's just like that sometimes. Gave it everything I got.”
Simon Pagenaud’s track record from 2016 (1:16.2530) was broken in the first round by Newgarden (1:15.7917), but Pagenaud reset the standard temporarily when he was fastest in the second round (1:15.7120) in the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet.
It set up the dramatic run for the pole. Newgarden – the only Team Penske driver to use a new set of 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.
“We knew we’d be on our back foot then in the Fast Six, but this car was phenomenal.”
Pagenaud, the reigning series champion, wound up third in the Firestone Fast Six with a lap of 1:15.6356 (113.518 mph). Helio Castroneves gave Team Penske a sweep of the first four starting positions when he qualified fourth in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet (1:15.8032, 113.267 mph). It is the third time this season that Penske drivers have owned the top four qualifying positions, after Road America in June and Gateway Motorsports Park last month.
Castroneves is third in the championship, now 23 points behind Newgarden. Pagenaud is fourth, 35 points behind the leader.
Takuma Sato qualified fifth in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda (1:16.2208, 112.646 mph), just ahead of Dixon in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing (1:16.3978, 112.385 mph). Dixon was the only driver to reach the Firestone Fast Six at all nine road- and street-course events where it was contested this season.
“The car was kind of decent to drive, but just couldn't carry the speed through the corners,” said Dixon, seeking his fifth Verizon IndyCar Series championship. A win Sunday would accomplish the feat and leave the New Zealander behind only A.J. Foyt (seven) for most career titles.
“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.”
A final 30-minute warmup practice at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday (live stream on RaceControl.IndyCar.com) will give the 22 competitors a final chance to hone in on race setups. A special pre-race program will stream live at 6 p.m. on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Live race coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. The race winner earns 100 points, with 80 points for second place, 70 for third and down to 16 points for 22nd place. A driver can earn one bonus point for leading a lap, with the driver leading the most laps getting two bonus points.
The 85-lap race on Sunday will mark the 12th straight year that the Verizon IndyCar Series championship is determined in the season’s last race.