SONOMA, Calif. – It was the best title defense anyone could ask for, but in the end, Simon Pagenaud fell shy of reclaiming the Verizon IndyCar Series championship despite winning the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sunday.
The 33-year-old Frenchman pulled a four-stop strategy, while the other championship contenders elected to stick with the common and conservative three-stop plan, which left Pagenaud to focus on one thing: Go as fast as he could.
The 2016 series champion and driver of the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet started his sequence on Lap 11, pitting from fourth for a set of Firestone alternate (red-sidewall) tires, and began to ascend on what he called the most intense drive of his Indy car career. Finding the lead on Lap 21, the fight for the top spot was a tussle of strategy between Pagenaud and Team Penske teammate and points leader Josef Newgarden the remainder of the 85-lap race at Sonoma Raceway.
The combination of strategies came to a head on Lap 65 as Pagenaud came out of the pits with a set of Firestone primary (black-sidewall) tires just in front of his title rival. As the two navigated a high-speed chess match around the 12-turn, 2.385-mile road course, it hit its climax at Turn 7 as Newgarden attempted a dive move. Pagenaud was quick to close the door and ride off to victory for the second consecutive year in Napa Valley.
In the end, it was still not enough, as Pagenaud fell 13 points short of Newgarden en route to finishing second in the championship.
Highlighting the driving spirit of some of his racing heroes, including Ayrton Senna, fighting until the end is how Pagenaud wanted to do it.
“It was very special to me,” said Pagenaud, who led three times for 41 laps.
“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. Very happy with that.”
By winning his 11th career Verizon IndyCar Series race on Sunday, Pagenaud became the only driver to complete all 2,331 laps this season, something he holds in high regard. Tony Kanaan is the only other driver to do it in a season, when he won the championship in 2004.
“I'm very proud tonight,” said Pagenaud.
“I'm very proud. I'm also superstitious, so 13 points behind is probably a good thing for next year. I like that number, so we'll see. But I'm very proud of my guys. Mechanically, we had zero problems this year, no mechanical issues.
“Chevy has been incredible in terms of reliability. Also my team, we never had an issue during the race, barely any – I don't think we had any problems in the pits at all. I didn't make any stupid mistakes, didn't break a wing, didn't have any contact at any point. So we finished every single lap of the season, which I don't know the stats, but that's insane, I think, and I'm very, very proud of that.
“That's kind of my trait as a driver is I don't go off track very often, and I think this season maybe we didn't have the outright pace at every race, but at least we had consistency, and we see it pays off.”
Despite not being able to become the first repeat series champion since Dario Franchitti in 2011, Pagenaud said he will walk away from the season holding his head high.
“I think I did the best I could, the best I could pretty much all season,” he said. “I don't have any regrets, no.”