By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
And then there were two…
With fifteen race weekends in the books, and just one remaining, the Verizon IndyCar Series is set to crown their 2016 champion at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on September 18th.
The season started with optimism from every team on the grid. Target Chip Ganassi driver, Scott Dixon, was looking at adding a fifth title to his resume. Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya was looking to avenge a season where he lost the crown to Dixon on a tiebreaker. His teammate, perennial championship contender Helio Castroneves, was hoping that 2016 would be the year that he would finally add a championship to his three Indy 500 wins. At Ed Carpenter Racing, Tennessee native Josef Newgarden was sure to be a contender after a breakout 2015 campaign. Tony Kanaan, in his third season with the Ganassi team looked to be in championship form. Driving for his father’s team, Graham Rahal was coming off of a fantastic 2015 season, with sights set on the 2016 title. Ryan Hunter-Reay and the entire Andretti Autosport team were looking to rebound from a rather lackluster 2015 season.
Each of the aforementioned drivers put up a good fight, but this weekend every one of them will be on the outside looking in at the title fight that will be contested between Team Penske teammates, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Let’s take a look at the road that each driver traveled to this make-or-break point in the season.
Simon Pagenaud, who hails from Poitiers in France, is in his second season with Team Penske. The expansion to four cars to accommodate the 2012 Indycar Rookie of the Year surprised some, but most understood that what we were seeing was an investment in the team’s future. Pagenaud’s 2015 season saw some growing pains for both driver and team and resulted in a forgettable 11th in the final standings.
This season, Pagenaud came out of the box strong and found himself as the points leader after Phoenix on the virtue of taking two second place finishes in the first two race weekends. From there, Pagenaud took three consecutive race wins at Long Beach, Barber, and the Indy Grand Prix thus casting the die as being the man to beat in 2016.
A miserable 19th place finish at the Indianapolis 500 was eased by the fact that the race paid double points, thus minimizing the damage. For the balance of the season he remained relatively mistake-free, save for slapping the wall at Pocono and coming home 18th, while Will Power took the win. With a win at Mid-Ohio, a podium at Detroit and top-fives at Iowa and Texas, Pagenaud has not given up the top spot in the standings since putting himself there in April.
Simon Pagenaud’s path the the title is simple: finish ahead of Will Power and all bets are off. Similarly, a fourth place finish will clinch a championship for the Frenchman. If Pagenaud finishes fifth, and Power takes the win and sweeps all of the bonus points available he will lose to Power by one point.
Pagenaud cannot be considered a strong closer, with his highest finish in a season finale in the Verizon Indycar Series being a 13th place. To his credit, three of those races were held on the oval at Fontana, and Pagenaud has yet to collect an oval win in the series. The fact that that he earned a podium at Sonoma in 2014 should provide a ray of light, and let’s not forget that Pagenuad has been more or less bullet-proof all season long, and he has earned this thing.
Will Power’s 2016 season got off to a rough start when he clouted the barrier in a big way at St. Petersburg. He went on to participate in qualifying, and he actually won the pole. However, post-qualifying, Power appeared ill and was not cleared to drive after being diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms. Power sat on the sidelines as Oriol Servia drove his car in the season-opener.
From there, Power took a podium at Phoenix and had a rather mediocre season unfold with miserable results at the Indy Grand Prix and Detroit Race One. In the second race of the Dual in Detroit, Power took his first win of the season, beginning a six race streak that saw him collect four wins and two second place finishes as he closed within 28 points of Simon Pagenaud.
At Watkins Glen, the Australian driver saw his momentum derailed after a run-in with Ganassi driver Charlie Kimball left him with a 20th place finish and a 43 point gap to Pagenaud.
Will Power is no stranger to the title fight, having lost the crown to Dario Franchitti three times, and Ryan Hunter-Reay once before finally sealing the deal in 2014 and taking home the Championship. Power’s path the the 2016 championship involves a big race for himself, and and a less-than-stellar weekend for his teammate.
If Power wins, which he is well capable of, as evidenced by his three prior victories at Sonoma, he needs to hope that Simon finishes at least four spots behind. That gap increases exponentially by every position that Power finishes after 1st: for instance, if Power finishes 2nd, he needs Simon in 12th and so on, and so on.
It’s not hard to see that, if these two find themselves battling for position on the track, that Pagenaud has much more to lose than Power. Team owner, Roger Penske, is already assured of a title in his 50th anniversary season either way, so it will be “boys have at it” and it should create a great show for he fans.
On a side note, looking back at St. Petersburg, the decision to put Oriol Servia in the car may come back to haunt Will Power’s quest for a second title. Because Power participated in practice and qualifying, he would have earned eight additional points for a last place finish if the team would have simply withdrawn the car, rather than enter it with Servia.
With the title on the line, those eight little points sure would come in handy right now for Will Power.
The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma will go down September 16-18th with race coverage on NBC-SN beginning on Sunday at 6:30 PM EST.