Newgarden claims first career title at Sonoma
18 September 2017 – Josef Newgarden may not have won the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sunday, but his second-place finish to team-mate Simon Pagenaud was enough to give the American his first IndyCar title in his first year with Team Penske.
Coming off of a disastrous race at Watkins Glen two weeks ago, Newgarden held a slim three-point lead over Ganassi's Scott Dixon coming into this weekend. A pole position expanded that gap to four, but the Tennessee native rarely seemed challenged for the overall title.
The race win, however, was a different story, spiced up by a brilliant four-stop strategy by Pagenaud. Running as the only Penske car on that alternative to a three-stop, the defending series champion gradually inched closer to the leader Newgarden throughout the race before finally jumping him in the last round of pit-stops.
From there, Pagenaud could coast to a one-second victory, but even with a bonus point for leading a lap, he would still come up short in the standings to Newgarden.
Challenges from the other players in the hunt coming into Sunday were relatively non-existent throughout the 85 laps, even though all five major contenders made up the top five at the finish. Will Power came third in the race in front of Ganassi's Dixon and Hélio Castroneves, the latter of whom may be racing in his final IndyCar event after a 20-year career.
While the event ran its entirety caution-free, nerves were high as the field came to the green flag.
The top five contenders got away cleanly at the start even though several cars lost bits of carbon fibre behind them. At one point James Hinchcliffe found himself far off track, and Tony Kanaan was punted from behind and had to limp back the pits with a flat tyre. A similar fate befell Takuma Sato, who had started fifth, quickly dropping him to last. Later on, Hinchcliffe's gearbox gave out, perhaps as a result of that early off.
The first strategic move of the race came courtesy of Pagneaud. Pitting first on lap 12, the Frenchman ditched his black tyres for the faster reds, but that fell just outside of the expected window for a usual three-stop race. As a result he would have to nurse his tyres and fuel through his second stint.
Back behind, positions held stable through the first round of pit-stops. Newgarden came in and out with a two-second lead over Power, but Pagenaud's off-sequence stop temporarily put him in the lead by roughly nine seconds.
Shortly after the first round of stops, one of the title contenders mathematically alive coming into this weekend, Alexander Rossi, started to slow. His team noted an engine issue and brought him in for an extended stop, removing the engine cover to make a diagnosis. This put him over 25 laps down, ending his (albeit outside) chances for the championship.
Pagenaud's second stop brought him in on lap 29, handing the lead back to Newgarden. He switched to sticker reds after building that lead up above 15 seconds, still keeping him squarely in the mix.
The next round of stops opened around lap 40 for the leaders, handing P1 back to Pagenaud to the tune of an even more impressive 25 seconds. Newgarden, meanwhile, narrowly got ahead of the lapped Hinchcliffe, giving him a bit of a blocker between himself and Power, but he still had to chase the defending champion.
Pagenaud's success hinged on whether he could gain five more seconds over Newgarden to cover the pit delta, but he could only manage 25 before coming in on lap 47 – hampered slightly by two consecutive trips through the grass in Turn 9.
His stop left him in P3, just 7.5 seconds adrift of Newgarden with Power sandwiched in between, but it would continue to narrow throughout the penultimate stint.
When Newgarden peeled into the pits on lap 62, Pagenaud got the lead again, but the Frenchman had also gotten by Power in the last stint, giving him a clear run at the American.
Pagenaud stayed out a lap longer, but faced with the prospect of being slowed by lapped cars, he dove into pit lane at the end of lap 63 instead of extending his stint.
He finally switched to blacks, and on pit exit, that decision may have come back to haunt him. Newgarden swung into the first turn just as Pagenaud blended back onto the track. The two came dangerously close to collisions in the next few turns, but Pagenaud held the lead and forced Newgarden to stay behind on warm red tyres.
The lead was not necessary for the young American, but he still attempted a futile over-under move at the hairpin before dropping a second behind in P2 with 20 laps remaining.
The two would remain in touch for the rest of the race, especially when they would bunch up behind lapped traffic, but both drivers remained cool and collected, allowing Newgarden to come home safely with a championship in hand. Up front, Pagenaud collected his tenth career win.
Getting thumbs-up from his fellow competitors on his cool-down lap, Newgarden did some celebratory donuts before meeting a jubilant Roger Penske back in pit lane. The Captain has steered drivers to 15 championships in his storied career, and Newgarden marks the first American to claim top prize since Ryan Hunter-Reay, who did it for Andretti Autosport in 2013.
Newgarden's rise to Penske came as the result of several years of improving results in sub-par machinery. His dominance at Iowa last year with a broken hand certainly opened the eyes of several top teams searching for a 2017 driver, and few were surprised when Newgarden got the call from Penske at season's end.
Replacing Juan Pablo Montoya this season, who tied for the championship two years ago (and lost it on a tie-breaker), Newgarden stepped into a supporting role with the team only to assert himself as a new leader a few races into 2017. Culminating in his aggressive move on Pagenaud at Gateway two races ago, Newgarden firmly took the reins of the championship in the last fortnight and never put a foot wrong at Sonoma.
He will have the option of using the #1 livery next season, provided he stays at Penske and in IndyCar, giving the current Penske line-up a total of three IndyCar championships.
The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season begins on March 11, 2018, in St. Petersburg, Florida