Sonoma Takeaways: The Newgarden era is upon us in IndyCar

Josef Newgarden and the No. 2 Team Penske car are now No. 1 in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Newgarden clinched his first career championship with a runner-up finish in Sunday’s season finale race at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in northern California.

No longer a rising star, Newgarden is now the star of the series, becoming the youngest American open-wheel series champion since Jacques Villeneuve claimed the CART IndyCar World Series title in 1995 at age 24.

Simon Pagenaud led the Penske sweep of the podium at Sonoma, crossing the finish line just over a second ahead of Newgarden while Will Power finished third. Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing came in fourth followed by yet another Penske driver, Helio Castroneves, in fifth. All five drivers were in contention for the title, but a near-perfect run from Newgarden ensured there would be no late disappointment.

It’s the 15th IndyCar title for “The Captain”, Roger Penske, and third in four seasons following Power’s win in 2014 and Pagenaud’s championship run last year. What makes this one so special is just how quickly Newgarden has risen to the top in his first season with the team.

Newgarden improved steadily year-over-year, driving for smaller teams since making his debut in 2012, but joining the powerhouse Penske crew this season unlocked his true potential. Few could have predicted the remarkable strides Newgarden would make – immediately winning four races in 2017 –
though. Even a seasoned vet like Pagenaud needed a year to adjust to The Penske Way of doing business, dropping to 11th in the championship during his first season with the team in 2015 before running away with it a year later.

This is definitely the start of something good between Penske and Newgarden.

Pagenaud solid all season

It was a rather anticlimactic end to the season in a caution-free and clean race, minus a little dust-up at the start.

Off-strategy proved to be the right strategy for Pagenaud to pick up a victory at Sonoma for the second consecutive season. Pagenaud, who started third, made his first pit stop several laps ahead of his teammates and switched to a four-stop strategy versus three. It worked out in the end as Pagenaud built a lead over 30 seconds when he made his final stop on lap 64 and exited the pits just as Newgarden was rounding the corner and fended off his fiery teammate/rival.

The champagne isn’t quite so sweet though as his masterful drive a year ago put the stamp on his championship season while this time it wasn’t enough as he finished second overall and 13 points behind Newgarden.

Despite Newgarden threatening to overtake Pagenaud with plenty of push-to-pass boosts remaining, Penske president Tim Cindric, who calls the shots on the radio for Newgarden, had to remind his driver to focus on the championship and not have it all end in disaster. Newgarden wanted to win and leave his mark on the season, like Pagenaud himself did at Sonoma the year prior, but possibly taking each other out and losing the championship for both wasn’t worth the risk.

Clearly, Cindric wanted to avoid another close call like last month at Gateway where Newgarden bumped Pagenaud out of the way en route to victory. It does make one wonder what would have happened if Pagenaud, who finished third at Gateway, had managed to hold off Newgarden and win that one.

Keep in mind a year ago we were wondering how many championships Pagenaud would win with Penske and now all of the attention is on Newgarden. Pagenaud was the only driver this season to complete every lap somehow avoiding accidents, glitch gremlins or even falling out of contention. It’s that stellar string of consistency that’ll keep him in the title hunt for years to come too.

Penske party over for Castroneves?

Team Penske claimed four of the top five spots in the championship with Castroneves finishing fourth and Power in fifth. Pagenaud and Power will be back next year to give Newgarden a run for the championship again, but Castroneves is the question mark.

The 42-year-old Brazilian wrapped up his 20th season in open-wheel racing, and 18th with Penske, but once again fell short of his first championship. Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner, came close before finishing second in the points four times and this may have been his last shot with rumblings he’s on the move to driving sports cars next season.

Dixon not up to speed at Sonoma

Dixon entered Sunday just four points back of Newgarden, but a fifth IndyCar championship wasn’t in the cards for the New Zealand driver.

The 37-year-old from Auckland was outmatched all weekend by the Penske crew and couldn’t quite snatch the title away on the final day of the season like he did in 2015. Instead, Dixon’s fourth-place finish netted him third in the standings, 21 points back of Newgarden.

It was a wild season for Dixon, who earned his 41st career win at Road America, led the points during the middle portion of the season and came back from a frightening crash at the Indy 500 in May where his car went airborne and slammed into the catch fence. Dixon somehow limped away from the scene despite his car being ripped apart.

Still, Dixon was the best hope at dashing Penske’s title hopes and will have to wait until next year to continue his assault on the all-time record books.


Canada corner

James Hinchcliffe’s day at the track barely got going before he was already out of contention.

The 30-year-old from Oakville, Ont., started 16th and there was nothing sweet about that position as he was hit from behind by Spencer Pigot on the opening lap. Hinchcliffe spun around and ended up in the dirt as the rest of the field breezed by and shuffled him to the back of the field. IndyCar officials reviewed the incident, however, and no further action was taken.

Already down a lap, electrical issues on Lap 53 sent Hinchcliffe packing to the pits for good.

That concluded Hinchcliffe’s third season at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as he finished a disappointing 13th overall in the championship for the second year in a row with 376 points. There were some highlights though, with a win at Long Beach and third-place finishes at his hometown Toronto track and in the first Detroit race of the doubleheader, but not enough to keep him in contention.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s Zachary Claman DeMelo made his IndyCar debut in the No. 13 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and finished 17th.

The 19-year-old came in fifth overall in the Indy Lights series this season with the Carlin Motorsport team earning one win at Road America and three other podium finishes (two of which came at the Toronto doubleheader).

For DeMelo it was all about making the most of the opportunity and getting valuable seat time at the top level of American open-wheel racing. We probably haven’t seen the last of him in IndyCar.