SEARS POINT, Calif. — For the first time since 2005, the Verizon IndyCar Series championship was decided by a landslide.
On the strength of seven poles and five race wins, Simon Pagenaud overwhelmed the open-wheel competition in 2016 on the way to his first IndyCar Series title.
The 32-year-old Frenchman delivered on all the potential he has demonstrated throughout his varied racing career to take a commanding victory Sunday in the GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway. He led 76 of 85 laps to best his longtime rival Graham Rahal by 3.25 seconds to put an exclamation point on his championship season.
Although they didn’t factor in Sunday’s race, Will Power and Helio Castroneves completed a 1-2-3 sweep of the IndyCar Series season standings by Team Penske on the occasion of team owner Roger Penske’s 50th season in motorsports.
With a 44-point cushion over Power to start the race, it was going to take something going drastically wrong for Pagenaud to miss out on his first IndyCar title. Instead, the misfortune befell his teammate, who finished 20th after an electronics glitch caused a clutch failure in the finale.
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“It’s unbelievable. What a race!” Pagenaud exclaimed in a Victory Lane interview. “So much emotion right now, and to be honest it’s hard to find the words.
“My whole career has been about this, about today and getting to this point, getting to this level and running up front like that when you need it,” he continued. “For an athlete, I think when you can perform 100 percent under pressure like this is amazing. It’s such a great feeling.”
Befitting Penske’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration, “The Captain’s” Indy car team performed even better than expected, winning 10 of 16 races in 2016 as well as 11 poles.
Despite Power’s best efforts, Pagenaud showed he was head and shoulders above the rest this year. His 127-point margin over Power in the final standings is the biggest since IndyCar introduced the basis of its current scoring system in 1996.
“Pagenaud went out and took it this weekend,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “He sat on pole, led laps, won the race — I mean, he did everything he needed to do. It was really impressive.
“We wanted to give Roger some success on his 50th anniversary and that’s what we were able to do,” Cindric added. “After what happened here last year, it’s a lot easier to leave here 1-2-3 than the way it turned out last year for sure.”
The turnaround compared to a year ago could not have been more complete. At the 2015 season finale at Sonoma, Penske’s Juan Montoya collided with Power and squandered a seemingly safe 34-point championship lead, handing the title to Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon.
This year, the only question was whether Penske could finish off its first 1-2-3 whitewash of the IndyCar standings since Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy throttled the CART series back in 1994. Castroneves edged Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden (who many observers tip to join the Penske team next year, replacing Montoya) for third place in the points chase.
“I felt bad for Will, but I’ve had my share of bad luck and I know that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Pagenaud said. “I think it’s safe to say we had a fair fight this year.
“One thing I did well this year was that I tried to keep my emotions very steady without going crazy on the radio,” he added. “When I saw he was slowing down, I have to say it was a relief. I thought, ‘Now we can finally unleash the beast inside and go for the win.’
“What an incredible day — this is the most dominant we have been.”
After what was widely perceived as a disappointing first year with Team Penske in 2015, when he failed to win a race and finished 11th in the standings, Pagenaud performed at a high level from the start of the 2016 campaign.
He led the most laps in the opener, and while he lost the win on an aggressive restart by teammate Montoya, the 43 points Pagenaud scored at St. Petersburg proved to be the decisive advantage he needed over Power all year long.
Although he is yet to win on an oval, Pagenaud significantly upped his game in that aspect this year. But his bread and butter remains the natural terrain road courses, where he earned wins at Barber Motorsports Park, Indianapolis and Sonoma to go along with a street course triumph at Long Beach.
But his win at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will stand as Pagenaud’s signature moment. He and Power battled wheel to wheel for a full 14-corner lap before the Frenchman pulled ahead into a lead he would not give up.
“It’s like a football team,” he said. “You have to make sure the chemistry is the best and it took awhile to make it happen. My team worked so well this year and there weren’t any disputes with any of my teammates.
“But to me, the biggest points this season were the times when it was bad,” he added. “Obviously we always see the good days, but Gil de Ferran told me if you can have a bad day and nobody notices, that’s how you do a really good job — and that’s how you win a championship.”
While Pagenaud celebrated, Power was left to consider his fourth second-place finish in the IndyCar Series championship since 2010. But he didn’t take this loss as hard as he may have in the past.
“I’ve had much more frustrating ends to a season than this, I can promise you,” Power said. “It was still a great year. We won a 500-mile race — not the right one, but we won a 500-miler and 1-2-3 in the championship for the team, which is really good considering the way it turned out last year.
“It was just his year,” Power added. “Everything fell for him and when it came down to the end here, he did everything he needed to do and made it difficult for me.
“He did a great job.”