Simon Pagenaud may have won the battle in Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series contest at Sonoma Raceway, a thrilling open-wheel finale on the winding road course, but the big winner on the day was Josef Newgarden.
On a picture perfect day in the rolling hills of northern California’s wine country, Newgarden took home his first IndyCar title and team owner Roger Penske’s 15th series championship. He did it in his 100th career start, earning a runner-up finish which put the 26-year-old over the top.
“I don’t even know what to say,” an ebullient Newgarden said. “It was all year and it took a lot to make it happen. Thank you to my teammates. They were giving me a lot of help to make sure we got this done. It’s a huge team effort at Team Penske. To finally get it is a dream come true.”
It was the latest in a long list to win the title for Penske. Among them are legendary names in open-wheel competition like Sam Hornish Jr., Rick Mears and the Unsers (Al Senior and Junior). So where does this talented youngster fit on his list?
“I’ve had so many great drivers, and I don’t have a favorite… I can’t compare [Newgarden] to anyone exactly,” 80-year-old Penske said of his latest champion. “He’s an American, which is special in this sport. Many of the other drivers have come from overseas and different parts of the world. To see Josef kind of take this route and be at the top right now is pretty exciting.”
Pagenaud won the race itself, which ran from wire-to-wire with nary a caution in sight. It was a repeat of what he did in the 2016 finale, also held at Sonoma Raceway. But this time around, it didn’t end with a title for the Frenchman – just a giant consolatory goblet of red wine in Victory Lane.
“We did what we had to do. We won the race; it wasn’t enough. It’s a whole championship,” a pragmatic Pagenaud said. “You’ve got to be strong in every race and I guess Josef was a little stronger this year, so we’ll come back… Next year, we’ll give him a hell of a competition again.”
In the end, Newgarden’s margin of victory was a mere (lucky) 13 points over Pagenaud. Wily veteran and four-time champ Scott Dixon finished third, 21 markers off the pace. Helio Castroneves, in perhaps the final ride of an illustrious two-decade IndyCar career that has included three Indy 500 victories, ended up fourth in the season standings, 44 points in arrears. Three-time 2017 winner and 2014 champion Will Power was fifth (-80 points) rounding out a fine year for the Penske quartet.
Newgarden earned his maiden crown in his first season driving for the Captain. The Tennessee native set career best marks in wins (four), podiums (nine), laps led (390), average start (7.9), and average finish (6.1). Were it not for a miscue on pit road in the penultimate race at Watkins Glen, leading to an 18th-place finish, he might have enjoyed a much easier afternoon at Sonoma Raceway.
85 laps of green flag racing flew by at Sonoma with the race taking just two hours, five minutes. The top two drivers swapped the lead several times, in part thanks to pit strategy. They both ended up leading 41 laps and were clearly the fastest cars down the stretch.
Pagenaud crossed the finish line 1.1 seconds ahead of the new champion, keeping the pressure on. Even a small mistake might have cost Newgarden dearly with Power and Dixon close behind. But he wasn’t to be denied, closing out the race in second place – good enough to win it all.