In commanding fashion, Simon Pagenaud won the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the final round of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship. Along with the race win, Pagenaud captured the 2016 IndyCar Championship and the Astor Cup.
The No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet was the class of the field, relinquishing the lead only twice for pit stops. Trailing by 3.25-seconds was Graham Rahal in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lannigan Honda. The podium was completed by Juan Pablo Montoya, who remained in the top five all day long in his No. 2 Penske Chevrolet. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, and Josef Newgarden completed the five top spots.
In typical fashion, the Frenchman kept his cool on his way to his fifth win of the season. Pagenaud drove a smart race, hitting his marks, even in defense against multiple challengers throughout the 85-lap finale.
At the wave of the green flag, Pagenaud wasted no time in pulling away from the field and after just five laps. He pulled ahead to 1.33-seconds over Penske teammate, Castronves. Power held pace with Castronves, keeping the top two in his sights until the first round of pit stops.
The hectic first lap produced a frenzy of position changes as the field weaved its way through the Californian hills of Sonoma Raceway. Heading into Turn 7, Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin made contact, stalling Kanaan’s Chevrolet.
After the first round of pit stops, Power was able to leap-frog Castroneves, setting his sights on the race and championship leader. The hunt was short-lived, however, as Power’s No. 12 Chevrolet stopped on track due to a Clutch Control Unit issue on Lap 35. At the same time, both Spencer Pigot and Conor Daly experienced issues with Pigot joining Power, stranded on track. The stopped vehicles required the first and only full course caution of the race, but not before Power and Montoya dove to pit lane to keep from being caught out by the yellow.
Yellow flag pit stops occurred slightly before scheduled and produced somewhat of a fuel-saving scenario for the second half of the race, but wheel-to-wheel battles happened right through the checkered flag. Power rejoined the race several laps down without a chance for the race win or the trophy, unwilling to let the circumstances end his day early.
After another round of freen flag pit stops, Rahal found himself in second place, three spots up from the start with more fresh tires and more fuel than the leader. The RLL Racing team used an alternate tire strategy to put the No. 15 in position for a strong fight to the finish.
While Rahal and Power dueled for first, Helio Castroneves was able to get around Marco Andretti and started to hound the No. 21 Chevrolet of Newgarden. The fight was just as much for third position in the championship as it was for sixth on track. The two Chevrolets displayed different strengths throughout the circuit as Castroneves was able to make up time through the first 4 turns, but Newgarden’s prowess was on the tail end of the lap. The young-gun was able to hold off the veteran stalwart, but ultimately lost out on the championship podium.
Pagenaud’s lackluster first season with Penske only produced two podiums, but a season of development and growth produced a world of difference.
“My whole career has been about this. Getting to this point, searching for speed every day,” said the new champion, Simon Pagenaud. “I can’t believe we did it!”
Pagenaud will be formally crowned at the next event for the Verizon IndyCar Series, at the annual IndyCar Championship Celebration, scheduled for October 4. This year, the celebration will be hosted by the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Downtown Indianapolis.
Featured Image: Chris Jones