SONOMA, Calif. — Team Penske was on the verge of closing out a dominating romp through the IndyCar season with a new champion in Simon Pagenaud and a stranglehold on the top of the series standings.
Pagenaud led a 1-2-3-4 qualifying rout for Sunday’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway. No one but Pagenaud or teammate Will Power can win the championship, and the team could be the first since 1994 to sweep the points podium.
The last organization to finish top-three in the standings? Penske, of course.
Pagenaud won the pole in Saturday’s qualifying with a flying final lap of 1 minute, 16.2530 seconds at Sonoma. It was the Frenchman’s ninth pole of his career, but seven of those have come this year with Penske. He’s exploded in his second season driving for The Captain, and the one point for winning the pole gives him a cushy 44-point lead over Power in the standings.
The tremendous improvement in his sophomore season with Penske comes down to one clear factor for Pagenaud.
“First of all, I drive a Penske car,” Pagenaud said. “They’re pretty good cars, let me tell you.”
Penske this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary in racing, and the party will be marked with the team’s second IndyCar championship in three years. Power won in 2014, and it would have been three straight had Juan Pablo Montoya not lost last year’s championship on a tie-breaker to Ganassi driver Scott Dixon.
There is no chance at another collapse on Sunday, and the title will go to Pagenaud with any finish of sixth or higher.
The team will go 1-2 in the standings, and Castroneves will try to make it 1-2-3 for the first time since Penske did it 22 years ago with Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. Castroneves is tied for third in the standings with Dixon, who stole the championship from Montoya last year by winning the finale to earn double points.
Dixon is trying to maintain a streak of finishing third or better in the standings every year since 2007. That would a resume addition for the Ganassi team, which is parting ways with longtime sponsor Target in IndyCar after the race. The partnership between Ganassi and Target was one of the longest in professional sports at 27 years.
But Dixon had a poor second session of qualifying and failed to advance into the final round. The three-time Sonoma winner will start seventh, almost out of striking distance of Pagenaud, who is having an amazing close to the season.
Pagenaud, who was partnered earlier Saturday with sponsor Menards for 1 races next year, has easily outpaced teammate Power all weekend. He led all three qualifying sessions, and Power seemed resigned to his fate.
“If it’s a straightforward race, it’s going to be very difficult to beat Simon,” he said. “Honestly, need to win the race to win the championship, and he has to have a bad day.”
Pagenaud doesn’t think the victory, which would be his fifth of the season, is guaranteed just because he’s starting on the pole for the 85-lap race. He won’t pay attention to anything but his race, he’s said, which will require not being focused on anything being done by the competition.
“I can’t control what’s going to happen behind, when people are going to start to pit,” he said. “I can’t see what anyone is going to do. We are going to have to be the leader of any strategy really. We’re going to have to have a strong discussion tonight on what we need to do to make sure we don’t take risks, because we’re not in position to take too many risks on strategy.”
Behind the Penske’s on the starting grid will be Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay in fifth and sixth.
The biggest surprise Saturday at Sonoma was the disjointed performance of Marco Andretti, who failed to move past the first round of qualifying. It was a huge disappointment for Andretti, who was fastest in final practice and is trying to close out another underwhelming season with a strong finish.
Andretti, who last won a race in 2011, has been under a spotlight recently for his lack of success on the track. Former driver and NBC Sports analyst Paul Tracy recently said that Andretti’s job prospects outside of his father’s organization are so low, driving for Uber would be one of his few options.
“This is going to be hard to swallow. Just a huge misfire,” Andretti said. “It’s going to be tough to sleep tonight. We had the pace to do something. I’m going to be pretty bummed out.”