Penske bounces back with 1-2-3 finish in IndyCar standings
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) To call the 2015 season a disappointment for Team Penske would be an understatement. The organization had the positioning to win championships in both IndyCar and NASCAR, but came up empty in both series.
The IndyCar defeat was a tough one: Juan Pablo Montoya had led the standings wire-to-wire but lost the title on a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon because Dixon won the season finale.
This year, as Roger Penske celebrates his 50th season in racing, there was a dedication toward giving The Captain a title.
Team Penske delivered Sunday when Simon Pagenaud won at Sonoma Raceway to wrap his first career IndyCar championship. It was the 14th series title for Penske, which also managed the first 1-2-3 sweep of the standings since another group of Penske drivers did it in 1994.
''Obviously, when you join a team like Team Penske, they deliver the best cars. They provide you the best equipment out there,'' Pagenaud said. ''As a driver, it's your job to do the best job possible.''
The Frenchman won his first career IndyCar title in his sophomore season driving for Penske. Pagenaud only needed a smooth race to complete on this breakthrough season.
Instead, he picked up his fifth win of the year and led a strong Penske finish to the final podium. A 14th IndyCar title - and 29th in various forms of motorsports - was guaranteed at the start of the race because only Pagenaud and teammate Will Power were mathematically eligible to win the title.
Pagenaud entered the weekend 43 points ahead of Power, but earned an additional point for winning the pole. Then he led the most laps and won a race that was worth double points in the standings.
''What I'm thinking about right now is, it's been a long career,'' Pagenaud said. ''You start, seven years old. You go through a lot. I remember my first race in France in a go-kart. It was raining. I had my visor open because I had the wrong helmet.
''I still have that picture at home. The ground I covered since is quite incredible. I just feel so blessed to be a human that has been able to live his dream and get to this. I basically accomplished all the dreams I had.''
Pagenaud's performance was a moot point, though: Power had mechanical issues 38 laps into the race that sealed the outcome.
''Obviously I saw Will slowing down, which I wanted this fight to go all the way,'' Pagenaud said. ''It was a bit of a relief, I have to say. I feel sorry for his luck.''
Probably needing to win to unseat Pagenaud, Power instead finished 20th. Pagenaud's final margin was 127 points, the largest points win since Alex Zanardi defeated teammate Jimmy Vasser by 119 points in 1998.
''It was pretty realistic considering it was (worth) double points,'' Power said. ''It's just how it flows, when it's your year, it's your year, and Simon has done a phenomenal job to lead a 1-2-3 finish.''
Power finished second in the standings, Helio Castroneves was third and Chevrolet won its fifth consecutive manufacturer title since its return to IndyCar in 2012.
PENSKE POWER: This has been a very strong year for the Penske organization, with the combination of Pagenaud, Power and Montoya winning 10 of the 16 races and 11 poles.
Across all motorsports, Penske this year also achieved its 500th pole, its 100th victory in NASCAR's top Sprint Cup Series, and now an additional championship. The Penske team still has another shot: Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano both had top-five finishes Sunday in the opening race of NASCAR's playoff.
''I just think after last year, only winning three (IndyCar) races as a team, we were so determined to come back,'' Power said. ''We all contributed. To win 10 out of 16 races is pretty strong as a team.''
GOODBYE TARGET: Scott Dixon didn't give sponsor Target the send-off it had hoped after 27 years in IndyCar.
Dixon started the day tied for third in the standings and trying to keep his streak of finishing third or better in the standings every year since 2007.
But he had radio issues, had to change his helmet during a caution, and finished 17th. It dropped him to sixth in the final standings. It's the lowest Dixon has finished since 2005.
MONTOYA MOVING ON? If Sunday was the final race for Montoya driving for Penske, he closed out his tenure on a strong note.
Montoya finished third at Sonoma to bookend the year with podium finishes. He won the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, but had a significant drop-off the rest of the way.
Although Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for Penske last year, the team owner is unsure if he'll bring the Colombian back next year. Penske hopes to make a decision within 60 days on if he'll field a fourth car, and who will drive it, and Montoya doesn't believe the door is closed yet on a return.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Alexander Rossi finished fifth on Sunday to lock up top rookie honors for the IndyCar season.
Rossi won the Indianapolis 500 for a huge bright spot on a season he otherwise believes failed to live up to expectations. Rossi had just one podium all year.
He's yet to announce his 2017 plans, and his name began to surface Sunday as a possible Penske driver next year.
''Wouldn't that be nice,'' Rossi said after the race.