Sonoma Raceway will always hold a special place in the history of Simon Pagenaud and his race career. It’s the track that allowed him to clinch his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship and achieve one of his life goals.
This year however, he arrives at the track in a different position. While still in contention for a title, he sits fourth back in points instead of first. The sponsorship is also different, rocking the DXC Technology sponsorship this weekend, with the sharp black-and-silver livery that we’ve seen him in at multiple tracks since Detroit. Last year, you’ll recall that he was in the teal-and-white HP colors. The other major change is the chassis he will be racing here in Northern California.
Pagenaud will not be using the same chassis that he used to win the race and his championship last year at Sonoma. In fact, he hasn’t used that car all year because it was placed in the Team Penske museum. He did not hold back his pride in divulging that information to us, nor should he. It’s quite the accomplishment and I inferred, very humbling.
The chassis he is using this weekend is the same one he drove at Texas Motor Speedway, on the Streets of Toronto and at Watkins Glen International. Pagenaud finished on the podium at Texas, earned the pole at Toronto, and finished in the Top 10 at Watkins Glen.
Historically, qualifying plays a huge role in race results at Sonoma Raceway, with all but 2 of 12 IndyCar event winners starting from P1, P2 or P3. Given that fact, tthis chassis could be a strong choice for the No. 1 DXC Team Penske crew as they attempt to win back-to-back championships. It’s not been a particularly smooth season for them, especially given how fluid things ran for them last year. Hard work doesn’t necessarily guarantee strong results due to this series’ level of competition, and that has to be frustrating.
Pagenaud and his crew have never lost focus, and that’s why even with only 1 win under their belts in 2017, they still sit 4th in points with an honest shot at winning it all. The reigning champ spoke on that unique situation,
“I’m super excited to have a chance. Like every athlete you have your on and off years. This wasn’t a great one for us but we had consistency and are in a position to win. I just have to focus on what I’m doing, forget the rest of the world. That’s what I did last year.
My life dream is accomplished. I’m feeling much more relaxed since I have one in the bag.
We had a confidence which we lost this year and we had to come back from that. You always have to search for more. There’s no limits. It’s far more complex than ‘oh, he won last year so he’s gonna win this year.’ It would be bigger for me to win a second row in a row, than winning the first. ”
That re-gained confidence within his No. 1 crew comes from the transparency at Team Penske that Josef Newgarden referenced. He and Pagenaud along with Will Power and Helio Castroneves make up the most dominant team in the IndyCar Series currently – that’s not by chance, it’s by design. You may think that the sharing of data and feedback would become more limited or privatized when all four drivers are in the championship hunt at the end of the season, but it’s quite the contrary according to Pagenaud,
“Team dynamics aren’t going to change much. If you start hiding (from teammates and fellow crews) it’s not good for the relationships. At the end of the day we all share and we all gain from that. And the best one will win.
Roger loves racing and seeing us fight. We work fully open (with each other) all the way until race time. And then it’s four separate teams.”
That separation was never more apparent this season than at Gateway Motorsports Park. A fired-up Pagenaud commented nearly immediately after ‘the move that won it’ from Newgarden, that he had lost trust and respect for him. Newgarden defended his racing, saying that he saw an opening and anticipated Pagenaud opening that door for him a bit and giving him the proper space to safely execute the pass. But Pagenaud defended his position and it led to Newgarden giving him a nudge out of P1 and back to P3 to complete the contest.
Tempers were hot and things were said that were all but retracted by the time we reached Watkins Glen six days later. Pagenaud and Newgarden spoke and smoothed things over and all seems well in Team Penske again. But no one should anticipate a change in Simon’s driving style, or for him to dial back his highly-skilled yet aggressive nature of driving,
“Gateway was great because it allowed me to understand the team rules better and I had time to process it all afterwards. Don’t expect me to open the door. And if I see a gap, I’m going for it. No mercy this weekend.”
Pagenaud was at the top of the timesheets during Thursday’s open test at Sonoma Raceway with a best lap time of 1:16.6511, just .39 of a second off the qualifying lap record that he set at the track last season. Qualifying will play a significant role this weekend with the occupants of the Firestone Fast 6 and their order likely foreshadowing the race and championship outcomes. Make sure you watch that qualifying session live on NBCSN this Saturday, September 16th at 6:30 p.m. ET / 3:30 p.m. PT.