The odds were not in his favor entering the final chapter of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series on Sunday; however, Simon Pagenaud fought hard to keep his No. 1 plate for another year.
Going off-sequence with an aggressive, four-stop pit strategy to move from the second row of the grid to the top spot by the end of the 85-lap GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the Frenchman did what he had to do to win his second title. But, the needed luck unfortunately never came about. Despite driving the wheels off his DXC Chevrolet, even going off course on back-to-back laps at the challenging turn nine chicane, the veteran never gave way. Pagenaud managed to reach the checkered flag first, but his Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden finished behind him in second, just enough to take his first series championship by 13 points.
“It was Kyle Moyer’s (race engineer) idea to go with four stops, it was a great call from and probably the only way we could win (today),” said Pagenaud to IndyCar Radio after the race. “We did everything we could do, but Josef did enough to hold us off, he deserves it.”
It is not that Pagenaud has had a bad season in 2017; it is just a step below what he achieved in 2016. In his championship-clinching campaign, the Chevrolet pilot opened the year with an astounding first five races where he either won the event or placed second. With the big surge, not even a two-race skid at Indy and Detroit, nor a similar dominant phase from Australia’s Will Power with six straight podiums could deny the French-based chauffeur from lifting the Astor Cup.
This year, the win count dropped from five a season ago, to just two including Sunday’s win at Sonoma; however, the Frenchman was much more consistent as a front-runner. After claiming 10 top-five’s in 2016, Pagenaud improved the count to 13 in 2017. Unfortunately, the same two rounds that hampered him a season ago, were prevalent in keeping his name off the championship trophy this time around. Despite having a goal to win the Indianapolis 500, the Frenchman struggled throughout May, only qualifying on the eighth row and settling for a 14th-place finish. The following weekend at The Raceway at Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan was equally challenging, and he was credited with a 16th in the first of two scheduled events.
While Newgarden also was a non-factor at the Brickyard, placing 19th after being collected in a late-race pile-up in llturn two, a similar run of wins and runner-ups in rounds 12 through 15 were enough to top Pagenaud’s results. The Frenchman was equally strong though, posting no finishes worse than ninth in Toronto.
“We won the race. It wasn’t enough,” explained Pagenaud after the race. “It’s a whole championship. You’ve got to be strong at every race and I guess Josef was a little stronger this year.”
Although the make-up of Team Penske next year is still in question with whether Helio Castroneves will return to contest the full season in 2018 or not, most of the key players are in place for Pagenaud, Newgarden, and Will Power should be back in full force. If the transition to a new look Dallara DW12 causes a few headaches, the experience should keep the Captain’s trio or quartet near the front of the proceedings, and if things work out, Simon Pagenaud may reclaim his title in 365 days time.
Still, when one looks back on his 2017 campaign, a runner-up placing is far from a failure.
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