The Finale-GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma
It was perfect weather for a championship celebration with temperatures in the 70s, down from the triple digit daze (see what we did there) that have plagued Northern California in the weeks prior to the weekend. We were in the California Wine Country (somebody has to do it!) and it was the 17th and final race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season at the best track possible (says us!) to declare a champion.
To win it all on Sunday, Joseph Newgarden simply needed to keep his foot down and drive a clean race from his front row pole position. Newgarden was one of four Penske drivers starting in the first four positions, coincidentally all in contention for the championship title. As the race unfolded, Newgarden had to contend with an urge to win the race itself, as well as a final push from last year's IndyCar Series champion, and Penske teammate, Simon Pagenaud.
The subplots were thick over the last race weekend for IndyCar in 2017. There wasn't just a championship to win at the final race as one other driver, also in title contention, would be looking at driving in his last IndyCar race. For two decades Helio Castroneves has raced in open-wheel racing, 17 of those years with Penske team. Sunday at Sonoma may be the last time Castroneves competes full time in IndyCar as many indications point to his moving to sports car racing to join with Penske's Acura DPi effort in the IMSA Sports Car series in 2018. Helio has been an integral part of IndyCar becoming a name synonymous with the sport. Turn on the television on a random Sunday and hear his name you know you're watching an open wheel race. Castroneves entered Sunday only 22 points behind Newgarden but was only able to manage a 5th place finish. While never winning a season title, he has three Indianapolis 500 wins and overall is a class act.
Newgarden's championship journey began when arriving at Team Penske from Ed Carpenter Racing. He won four races in '17, building up a points lead going into the finale. At just 26 years old, while not the youngest driver, was a in a field that's tough to break into. Numerous seasoned veterans and previous champions made up sharp end of the field of the IndyCar series meaning that that racing talent and a reliable car are not the only things needed to take a title. He came to Sonoma leading in wins and with 9 top ten finishes. It was this consistency that kept him in the title hunt in spite of a crash while exiting pit road at Watkins Glen, an error that would allow Scott Dixon to reduce Newgarden's lead to just three points. After grabbing pole position on Saturday it would be his race (and series title) to win.
Newgarden's championship in his first year with Team Penske would bring him the Astor Cup, joining Rick Mears ('79), Al Unser Jr. ('94) and Gil de Ferran ('00) as drivers also winning the title in their first year with Penske. He is only the second American in 11 years to win the championship.
The race itself was entertaining as always. Sonoma raceway never fails to deliver the goods. Rolling hills and twists and turns keep the action tight and constant, and the narrowness of the track ensures that any successful pass on the track is done at considerable risk/peril. We've observed over the years that when we watch races at Sonoma on TV we stay fixed on the action everywhere because know...we're just certain...that at any moment, either gravity or poor discretion will take a driver out of the running.
On lap 64, Simon Pagenaud would make his fourth pit stop and emerge back in the lead that he gained earlier when Newgarden pitted. (It must be noted that Pagenaud was the only driver in the top ten finishers to pit four times!) For a time Newgarden, not needing to win the race to win the championship, charged toward Pagenaud like a man possessed. Caution and patience were tossed aside both drivers scorched the timing sheets up until the last few laps of the race. In a show of discretion and maturity, or rational fear of angering Roger Penske, Newgarden accepted his 2nd place race position and maintained a small gap to Pagenaud for the last couple of laps, accepting that it better to lose the battle for the race win in order to win the war for the season title.
Not to be overshadowed by Newgarden clinching the series cup, Pagenaud did this year, exactly what he did last time he came to Sonoma. He showed up to the last race of the year and taught a master class on how to win at one of the more difficult tracks on the calendar. He did it by racing clean and sticking to his team's race strategy (however unorthodox).
Everyone in attendance got their moneys worth because all of these drivers left everything on the track.
Team Penske initially met with Newgarden when he was 21 years old, but declined to sign him, as he was seen as brash and prone to crashing. Honestly, who really knows if that was a good idea. In many cases it's probably a good call for a team to look at an untested prospect and think in might be a good idea to pass on an opportunity in order to let a driver, well, wiggle their giggles out. Though young, he is no rookie, having raced in IndyCar for 5 years before joining Penske. Maybe this gap in time was just the stuff of that old Penske magic. Newgarden winning at Sonoma earned Team Penske their 15th IndyCar Series title.
With the 2017 season coming to a close, IndyCar once again shows itself as one of the most competitive racing series around. Few other series, specifically open wheel racing series, can claim to have multiple drivers in contention for the title at the last race of the season. IndyCar is clearly in a strong position going forward, into the 2018 season. New teams are on deck to join in 2018, and they'll have a new car design that many drivers already believe will make the racing even more competitive. Newgarden's championship will serve to propel him as the face of IndyCar for 2018 and hopefully draw even more young people to the sport as he has a media and track personality that is just what racing needs. Sunday in Sonoma may have officially been an ending, but to us it looks like the beginning of something special for American open-wheel racing.