By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
SONOMA, Calif. – The Verizon IndyCar Series championship battle between Team Penske teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud features two hungry drivers trying to solidify their place in Indy car racing history.
Both combatants have had opposite seasons which has led them to this point.
Pagenaud has been the man to beat the entire season, taking the points lead after the Phoenix Grand Prix in April and held the lead ever since. He has scored four wins, including three in-a-row at Long Beach, Barber and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis before topping up with another win at Mid-Ohio in July.
The only times that the eight-time Verizon IndyCar Series winner has not had a good result has been when his car let him down, notably being at Indianapolis and Road America when his Chevrolet engine faltered late in the race and took him out of contention. His lone DNF of the season came at Pocono with just over 100 miles left to go.
Aside from his few mechanical issues, the 32-year-old has been a threat to win every race this season while racing smart as well. An example that showed how smart he raced was at the restarted Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway where he was in a four way dogfight for the win with Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan. The quartet went four wide late in the going and Pagenaud opted to back out of the fight.
With a 44 point lead at his disposal, Pagenaud essentially has to finish ahead of Power in order to lock up the title. With double points on the line, Pagenaud needs to finish in fifth place to lock up the title. While winning the pole yesterday gave him an extra point, that has not made the title fight a lock for him. At a track where it is hard to overtake, Pagenaud admitted during yesterday’s post qualifying press conference that strategy will be the determining factor on who takes the title.
“I really am worried about that,” Pagenaud said. “Strategy is just an outside factor that we can’t control. I’ve had issues this year, some mechanical issues. What if it happens again? Can’t control that. That would be so unfortunate.”
“It is what it is at the end of the day. Strategy, as well. A yellow that comes at the really wrong time for me. Like I said earlier, I think we need to err on the safe side, even if it’s to finish second. I think it’s okay as long as we win the championship.”
Aside from that, the second-year Team Penske driver’s chances are still very high as he is in the best starting position that he can be in at Sonoma Raceway – starting on pole.
A championship would solidify Pagenaud’s presence in the paddock as one of IndyCar’s elite – being a threat to win virtually every race in every circumstance. The Frenchman has always had the ember burning inside of him and was able to push Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to fight for a championship in 2014.
Power has played the catch up game the entire after being forced to sit out the first race of the year due to concussion-like symptoms that later was determined to be an inner ear infection.
That has not slowed Power’s pace the entire year as he has fought his way back to the championship fight doing what he does best – winning. Power has matched Pagnenaud’s number of wins with four and with two of those wins (Road America, Pocono) coming when Pagenaud has finished poorly.
Power has approached this very relaxed, which is a stark contrast from the Power we have seen over the course of the last few years. Power always held the points lead for much of the year but would always end up making a mistake which would take the title from him.
This season, Power has been in the opposite position as he has had to chase down Pagenaud. The 35-year-old Aussie pulled himself into striking distance of Pagenaud heading into Watkins Glen, but that all evaporated when contact with Charlie Kimball took him out of the race. That left has left him with a 44 point deficit heading into the final race.
With three wins at Sonoma Raceway, Power’s reputation at the 2.385-mile, 11-turn permanent road course north of San Francisco makes him a a favorite to win the race. As Pagenaud noted, strategy is going to be a theme in today’s race, and Power noted that could be at his advantage.
“I think it’s going to be a four-stopper,” he said. “That makes for a lot of interesting stuff to have strategy-wise. Last thing we need now is a straightforward race because Simon will be tough to beat if that’s the case.”
A second championship would be life changing for the the 10-year Indy car veteran. It will not only reinforce Power’s status as an elite drive in the series, but it will prove that he can rise above adversity and rebound from everything that is thrown his way.
With his wife, Liz, pregnant with the couple’s first child, adding another championship to the mantle would add to Power’s happiness.