It won’t be difficult for Team Penske to top its performance from last year at Sonoma Raceway.
After leading the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings from the drop of the checkered flag over the streets of St. Petersburg in March of 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya was unable to seal the deal and win the title in last year’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma — due largely to an incident involving himself and Team Penske stablemate Will Power during the race.
That day ended with Scott Dixon not only taking the victory but also the series title as a result.
This time around, Roger Penske’s four-car squad is in a much more secure position with the 2016 season finale mere hours away.
In 2016, two of Penske’s drivers have fought for and shared the majority of the headlines: Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. In that order.
Pagenaud kicked off the year in dominant fashion, finishing second at the first two races on the streets of St. Petersburg and at Phoenix International Raceway before winning the next three rounds on the streets of Long Beach, at Barber Motorsports Park and on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
The Frenchman’s streak met its end with a 19th-place finish at the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, after which Power began to creep toward the top of the points standings despite not racing on the streets of St. Petersburg at the season opener due to what was initially thought to be a concussion.
Power rebounded from finishing 20th in Race 1 on Detroit’s Belle Isle by winning the race the next day. From then on, the Australian laid down a streak comparable only to Pagenaud’s from the year’s first five rounds. Hot off the Belle Isle win, Power won at Road America, finished second at Iowa, won on the streets of Toronto, finished second at Mid-Ohio then won the 500-mile event at Pocono Raceway.
That’s 1-1-2-1-2-1 if you’re counting, which compares to Pagenaud’s 2-2-1-1-1, if you’re keeping score.
An indiscriminate year of strong finishes, crashes, hot streaks and a handful of poor results have built the path to this weekend’s season finale for the Team Penske duo of Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Barring any bizarre circumstances, which are known to frequent IndyCar from time to time, one of these two will leave Sonoma as the 2016 titlist.
Thankfully, Team Penske has managed to look past the fact that only one of their drivers can walk away with the Astor Cup. At various points throughout Friday’s pair of practice sessions for the IndyCar field at Sonoma Raceway, the two drivers and their engineers made it clear that no matter the outcome, the weekend is going to be a good one for Team Penske. All individuals involved recognize the magnitude of what is to come on Sunday, yet the team seems to be at ease, likely due to a deep reassurance that this year is going to end much better than last.
With that said, a tense feeling exists. Pagenaud discovered a method to be relieved of it, at least temporarily, on Friday.
“It took some of the edginess away,” said Pagenaud about returning to the cockpit of his No. 22 Chevrolet on Friday at Sonoma.
“We had good pace in the second session after trying a couple of different things in the morning. I’m looking forward to building on that tomorrow and getting a good qualifying result.”
Power, who came up short in collecting his first IndyCar title numerous times before finally achieving it in 2014, has played the role of the predator rather than the prey this year.
A strong beginning to this weekend paired with the mentality he’s used to reach the top of the points standings could lead to a second championship in three years for the Aussie.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Power said. “The Verizon Chevy ran well today in practice. We’ll go back and look at data and work on what we can do for tomorrow in qualifying.
“I definitely love this track and it’s challenging, but I believe we’ll be fine for tomorrow.”
Not only will Pagenaud or Power end up the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, Helio Castroneves will battle to swipe third in the points from reigning champion Scott Dixon. Castroneves, who was fastest in both Practice 1 and Practice 2 on Friday to kick off the weekend, has the opportunity to make it a Team Penske 1-2-3 atop the final points standings for the year.
Even if Dixon successfully hangs onto third in the points in Target’s last race supporting his No. 9 Chevrolet, the weekend will be a positive one for Team Penske as The Captain is set to claim his 14th open-wheel championship.
The only question that remains is with which driver.
The 85-lap conclusion to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season will begin at 3:50 p.m. PDT on Sunday, with live coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. EDT on NBCSN.