Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, finds himself in a reversed position entering the last race of the 2017 season on Sonoma.
Pagenaud must come from behind to emerge champion in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on September 17.
The Team Penaske driver sits fourth, 34 points behind points leader and teammate Josef Newgarden, entering the double-points race on Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile road course. Pagenaud is still optimistic about his chances.
“We had to give a different show to all of you guys, make it more interesting, so we did it a completely different way this year,” Pagenaud said. “Quite frankly, we have nothing to lose, which is a very pleasant position to be in.”
Pagenaud led another Team Penske teammate, Will Power, by 44 points before last year’s finale, then won the Sonoma pole and clinched a first series title with his career-best fifth win of the season. Power encountered a clutch control unit malfunction and faded to 20th.
The road to repeat has proven to be more of a challenge. The 33-year-old Frenchman has won only once this season at Phoenix, but stayed in the hunt with a series-leading 12 top-five finishes.
“It’s very hard,” he said. “I think it’s even harder to repeat, quite frankly. I found myself in a great situation last year with a dominant performance, but repeating is even harder just because you have a baseline of things that worked the year before, and you’re hoping it will do the same.”
The top seven drivers in the points standings are mathematically capable of winning the title. Newgarden, in his first year driving for Team Penske, has put himself in the prime position with a series-best four wins. Four-time series champ Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing is just three points behind. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves is third, 22 points behind.
“I think it’s fantastic for the show. It’s great for the series,” said Pagenaud, who will drive the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet in the finale. “I think the product that we have right now is phenomenal, and I think it’s not the first year it’s happened, but IndyCar is definitely to me the most exciting sort of racing in the world right now.”
The lingering question for Sonoma, with so many title contenders, is how hard will the frontrunners push the issue.
“Quite frankly, it’s going to be who makes the best decisions and – that’s personally without being pretentious – that’s something that I think I do well,” Pagenaud said. “So that’s why I think my chances to win this championship are very high. Again, I have to go into Sonoma with a lot of confidence, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do, just like I did last year, and may the best win.”