INDYCAR: Pagenaud Caps Title Run With Sensational Victory In Sonoma

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Simon Pagenaud wrapped up his 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship season with a dominating victory at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. (Chris Owens/IndyCar photo)

Simon Pagenaud wrapped up his 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship season with a dominating victory at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. (Chris Owens/IndyCar photo)

SONOMA, Calif. — Simon Pagenaud put the exclamation point on a sensational breakthrough season, winning Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to clinch his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship in impressive fashion.

Pagenaud, driving the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet for Team Penske, won the 85-lap race at Sonoma Raceway by 3.2523 seconds over Graham Rahal.

The dominating performance saw Pagenaud lead all but nine laps and clinch the series crown by 127 points over teammate Will Power.

“I tried to take my future in my destiny by being aggressive and going as fast as I could,” Pagenaud said. “Clearly we had a phenomenal car, I think a very dominant car today, so we could do that.”

“I just enjoyed driving today. It was an incredible day and I think it just shows the strength of the 22 team for the whole season.”

Pagenaud started the race from the pole position and surrendered the lead only during pit stop cycles in winning for the fifth time this season and ninth of his Indy car career.

Power, in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, was running second to Pagenaud until the Clutch Control Unit (CCU) failed and stopped his car on track on Lap 36.

The incident drew the race’s only caution flag.

Power fell eight laps off the pace while repairs were made and finished the race in 20th place, but retained second in the championship for the fourth time in his 12-year Indy car career.

“It was obviously disappointing to have that gearbox problem,” Power said. “I think Simon was going to be tough to beat as far as the championship goes. Maybe we could have beaten him for the (race) win, but I doubt it if everything just played out as it was.

“But honestly it was still a very strong year,” added the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, whose wife Liz is expecting their first child in the off-season. “Four race wins. I won a 500-mile race (at Pocono). Not the right one (the Indianapolis 500), but still a 500-miler.”

The championship was the 14th in Indy cars for Team Penske, celebrating its 50th anniversary in racing this year, and the race win was the team’s 187th in Indy car competition — more than any other team.

Pagenaud, who set a track record in qualifying on the 2.385-mile permanent road course Saturday, etched his name into the Sonoma books again with his average race speed of 101.181 mph.

He now enjoys the spoils of the championship, which will include a $1 million prize and official presentation of the Astor Cup on Oct. 4 at the INDYCAR Championship Celebration in Indianapolis.

The gap gives the 32-year-old Frenchman two weeks to let the magnitude of his accomplishment sink in.

“It’s unbelievable,” Pagenaud admitted. “I think I will realize it more tomorrow. There is so much emotion right now, to be honest, I can’t find the words. My whole career has been about this, about today and getting to this point and to this level.”

Team Penske completed a 1-2-3 sweep of the championship when Helio Castroneves finished seventh in the race to edge Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden by two points in the standings.

Sunday marks the first time the same team took the top three championship positions since Penske also accomplished the feat in 1994 with Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy.

With his second-place race finish in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda, Rahal advanced to fifth in the championship — the highest-placing Honda driver.

“Good day, good way to end it,” said Rahal. “I wanted to get Pagenaud, but when I’d get behind him, I’d get massively loose. I thought … it was best I salvage a second place rather than do something stupid.”

As he did in winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May, Alexander Rossi ran out of fuel and coasted to the finish line. He was passed by Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay for fourth place, but still secured Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for the season just as he did for the Indy 500.

Chevrolet, which won 14 of the 16 races this season, also clinched its fifth consecutive manufacturers’ championship by 104 points over Honda.

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