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Pagenaud and Power prepare for their championship battle

September 17, 2016
will-power

Will Power practices at Sonoma Raceway

They were teammates a decade ago; they’re teammates now. In Team Penske’s 50th year, either Simon Pagenaud or Will Power will bring The Captain, Roger Penske a new prize: the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. The question is: which one?

Pagenaud, the Frenchman who’s been on a tear in his second season with the team leads his Australian teammate by 43 points, but that’s not nearly enough to wrap the title in the 85-lap GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma this coming Sunday afternoon.

The season finale offers double points for all 22 INDYCAR drivers and teams, so much depends on the second Friday practice. None of Team Penske’s four drivers, Pagenaud, Power, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya turned lots of laps in the cool morning practice, holding onto their Firestone tires in anticipation of this afternoon’s one hour, 15 minute session instead.

The rationale is easy to understand. “It was cool, so that made the car a lot better,” Power said. “It didn’t make sense to run very much,” after turning only four laps around the 12-turn, 2.385-mile undulating road course. “I think the next session is going to be real telling. I think everyone is going to run a lot because around the time we’re qualifying, the temperatures are going to be the same – and hopefully the wind is. We’ll get more of an idea then.”

As it was the 22 IndyCar drivers turned only 328 during the first practice of the same duration. It started slowly and didn’t get much busier. In fact, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato was the most prolific driver of the first session, with 23 laps under his belt in position 8. Pagenaud’s five laps placed him 10th and Power held the 17th spot. Neither appeared fazed by their morning standings.

“I’m excited to be here, excited to be in this fight, excited that we’re able to, with Will and our teammates, bring another championship for Team Penske in the 50th year anniversary of the team. I think it’s very important to Roger [Penske] and the entire organization,” Pagenaud said. “Now it’s about racing – we’re just saving our tires, waiting for the conditions to be more similar to what’s going to happen over the weekend. We know the temperatures are going to rise.”

There’s nothing awkward about this battle, as these drivers competed as teammates with Walker Racing in the 2006-7 Champ Car World Series. They know each other; know each other’s styles and know each other’s flaws. And now it’s time to see who can handle the pressure of the 11th consecutive season where the Verizon IndyCar Series goes into the last of 16 contests with a new champion to be crowned at the close of the race.

Of course, in the afternoon everything changed with Castroneves, Power and Pagenaud leading the time sheets, but none of them under Power’s 2015 lap record of 1:16.2597 (112.589mph). Castroneves was close but not quite there at 1:16.6678 (111.990mph).

With “everyone else out of the equation, that makes it different,” Power admitted. “It’s a little different from last year. I was definitely further away last year when I had a shot at it, but we have a realistic shot this weekend,” he said. “Everything’s got to fall into place, but yeah, they’re all different,” these INDYCAR titles he’s battled to achieve, gaining the 2014 championship yet finishing oh so close, so many times before then.

In 2014 Power simply went about his season not expecting to win the title. “I’m not going to win a championship, so who cares,” he remembered thinking. “I just went and raced, and I won one. That’s actually how I approached the beginning of that season, then it started coming together. Okay,” he said, “I get it. Racing gods just want to play with you a little.”

And then there was last year, when Target Chip Ganassi Racing took the title in this very race, with Scott Dixon tying Juan Pablo Montoya on points, but emerging with the title due to his greater number of wins. “After what happened last year, just no way we could let that happen again. It was just such a pity, that we allowed Ganassi to get that title. It didn’t need to happen; we were very determined to make sure it didn’t happen this year,” Power said.

simon-pagenaud

A pensive Simon Pagenaud ponders the weekend at Sonoma Raceway

Still, Power has to chase his teammate Pagenaud, whose 43-point lead – under normal circumstances – would be nearly insurmountable. Letting his teammate do much of the talking about their upcoming battle this Sunday in the Wine Country, the Frenchman was circumspect. “I’m in a different position to Will. Will needs to win the race to have a legit chance, really. We don’t have a big issue,” he said.

“But I think you just race like you usually do. Everybody is going to race like you usually do. Why change right now? There’s no reason to do that. But you do need to know where you’re running around, that’s for sure. Obviously, there will be aggressive guys out there – like every year. The fact that it’s double points gets everybody pretty excited – sometimes too much. We’re going to have to be heads-up,” Pagenaud stated.

Tomorrow it becomes a bit more tense for this duo, as they prepare for qualifying with a morning practice about the same time as Friday’s, then qualify in mid-afternoon (similar to today’s time, as well). Which “P” guy will emerge on top once it’s all said and done? Qualifying may tell us more about

this duo.

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit

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