Simon Pagenaud wasn't about to let up, even with a generous lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship heading into the last race of 2016, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The Team Penske driver continued his qualifying mastery and will start from pole position in Sunday's season finale, winning the Verizon P1 Award today at Sonoma Raceway. Pagenaud's lap of 1 minute, 16.2565 seconds (112.594 mph) in the Firestone Fast Six - the third and final round of knockout qualifying - earned the Frenchman his seventh pole of the season and extended his points lead to 44 over teammate Will Power.
With Sunday's 85-lap race on the 2.385-mile, 11-turn permanent road course paying double points, Pagenaud needs to finish fifth or better in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet to clinch his first career championship.
"Today I just think we just, again, showed strength," Pagenaud said. "That's what it was all about, to show if we are to win the championship, we deserved it on many points."
Pagenaud, who broke Power's 2015 track record in Segment 1 of qualifying with a lap of 1:16.2530 (112.599 mph), led a Team Penske sweep of the top four qualifying positions. It provided a bookend to the season since the Penske foursome accomplished the same feat in qualifying at the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
"(Qualifying) was about preparing the car for the red Firestone tires," Pagenaud said, "which we know I'm always more comfortable on those tires so I can always extract a little bit more from myself.
"We had good balance on the car. The first lap we put the red Firestone tires on, I went on the radio and said, 'Wow, this is going to be good.' We were able to replicate the lap time every time. Unbelievable that we could actually replicate the lap time in the Fast Six with used tires."
Helio Castroneves, the 2008 Sonoma winner, will start second in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet after logging a lap of 1:16.4134 (112.362 mph) in the Firestone Fast Six. Juan Pablo Montoya will start third in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.5400, 112.177 mph).
Power, a three-time Sonoma race winner and five-time pole sitter at the track, was fourth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.6659, 111.992 mph). The 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion is the only driver who could overtake Pagenaud, but knows the task became more difficult today.
"That's all I could do in qualifying, that was everything I had and the car had," Power said. "It's a long race. I think it's going to be a race of degradation. It's going to be really interesting the way the tires go.
"Last thing we need now is a straightforward race because Simon will be tough to beat if that's the case. Honestly, I need to win the race to win the championship, and he has to have a bad day."
The pole position is the 245th in Indy car history for Team Penske, celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. Pagenaud's seven pole positions are the most in a season in the era of the current Dallara IR-12 chassis and most since Power collected eight poles in 2011.
Graham Rahal was the top non-Penske qualifier, fifth in the No. 15 Steak 'n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1:16.7149, 111.921 mph). Ryan Hunter-Reay was sixth in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport (1:16.9132, 111.632 mph).
Scott Dixon, the two-time defending Sonoma winner and reigning series champion, barely missed reaching the Firestone Fast Six and will start seventh in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
A final 30-minute warmup practice is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday (streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com). Coverage of the 16th and final race of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season to determine who will be presented the Astor Cup and earn a $1 million prize begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
Menards extends sponsorship with Penske to 10 races in 2017
Team Penske and Menards announced an extension that will keep the Midwest-based home improvement store chain as a primary sponsor on Simon Pagenaud's Verizon IndyCar Series entry for 10 races in 2017. Team owner Roger Penske, Menards owner and founder John Menard and Pagenaud were on hand to discuss details of the deal this morning at Sonoma Raceway.
The Penske-Menards partnership began this year with what was originally announced as a three-race deal. It included the Angie's List Grand Prix of Indianapolis that Pagenaud won and the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and was eventually extended to five races in 2016. That number will double next season.
"Today, as you know from a sponsorship perspective, to find the right sponsors who have the right integrity, want to support the sport, it's difficult," Penske said. "I think that we're very fortunate to have someone that understands it. (Menard) understands we don't win every weekend. Hopefully we have a record that is meaningful as we go forward."
Menard explained that Pagenaud is a great fit for the brand because his family ran a similar business in his native France.
"The stuff he's done with our suppliers and our customers and our team members, I mean, he's great," Menard said. "He's warm, he's gracious. People just like him and that's what we're looking for in a spokesperson and that's what we're looking for in 2017."
Pagenaud was proud to be able to continue in the bright yellow car in 2017.
"For me, being able to be part of this incredible livery is very special," he said. "I feel very honored to be that driver. Luckily we got a win out of the way right away at Indianapolis (in the grand prix), which was very important to John, very important to Roger and the whole team as well. It was an incredible start of a great relationship."
Chip Ganassi Racing faces busiest weekend in six racing series
Chip Ganassi Racing is the busiest of all race teams this weekend. A total of 14 CGR cars and 18 drivers are entered in races across six diverse series: the Verizon IndyCar Series at Sonoma Raceway, the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series at Chicagoland Speedway, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the FIA World Endurance Championship at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and Red Bull Global Rallycross in Seattle.
It is the first time that CGR will have all of its operations competing on the same weekend. For a company that competes in four vastly different racing disciplines, it takes a well-coordinated effort to make everything come together. Mike Hull, the team's managing director, says that the people working in each entity are the key.
"The logistics to be able to run multiple entries in multiple series is all about the people that manage and operate within the sphere of each of these programs," Hull said. "Each one has to be self-reliant and it's a matter of having really good people in every position and having the people operate as one group of people."
The team has already had an impressive season, scoring 10 wins across the disciplines including a monumental class win with the Ford GT at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. The most recent CGR victory came with four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi on Sept. 4.
Dario Franchitti, now a retired driver serving as a driving coach with CGR's Verizon IndyCar Series program, won three of his four Indy car championships and two of his three Indianapolis 500s with Ganassi. He also won sports car races and drove in NASCAR for the team.
"When you look back to where Chip's business all started back in 1990 with a one-car Indy car operation, it's very impressive to see the racing empire he's built," Franchitti said. "Running 14 cars in six series across the globe doesn't just happen overnight. You have to have strong partners and first-class team personnel supporting you along the way. Decent drivers don't hurt, either.
"It's one thing to just field that many cars, but I think Chip would be most proud of the fact that he's won this season in each of those series. That is no easy feat, by any means."
Firestone Racing donates $20,000 to four charities dear to INDYCAR
Firestone Racing announced that it is making season-ending donations to four charities closely related to INDYCAR.
The Verizon IndyCar Series' official tire supplier is making donations of $5,000 each to: the Wilson Children's Fund that supports the family of the late Justin Wilson; the Indy Family Foundation, which helps members of the racing community in need; the USAC Benevolent Fund in memory of short-track star and three-time Indianapolis 500 starter Bryan Clauson; and the Dan Wheldon Foundation that supports the Alzheimer's Association.
"Championship weekend is a perfect time to reflect upon and celebrate everything that has happened over the past season," said Lisa Boggs, director of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. "The motorsports community is one big family and it's a privilege to be a part of it. We wanted to take the opportunity afforded by this weekend to honor those individuals who embodied the spirit of racing and their legacies that live on through all of the great work these organizations do to help others."