Pressure powered Pagenaud to IndyCar title

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Simon Pagenaud scoots around the paddock area before qualifying.

Simon Pagenaud dreamed of the type of day which took place Sunday when he dominated the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to not only win the race, but to clinch his first IndyCar championship.

Pagenaud celebrated by lifting the trophy and giving it a kiss in Victory Lane, making Roger Penske look like a genius — again — for bringing him on board to Team Penske two years ago.

Pagenaud was impressive from the start, finishing second in the first two races before winning the next three, at Long Beach, Alabama, and the Indianapolis Grand Prix, and held the points lead the rest of the season.

Pagenaud, the 32-year-old Frenchman, led the series in victories (five) and poles (seven). He was in a two-way battle for the championship with Team Penske teammate Will Power, who experienced mechanical problems early in the race Sunday and was never a factor.

“I enjoy pressure,” said Pagenaud, knowing the pressure was on him since he had led the points battle for the majority of the season. “I was hoping the pressure would come up and I’d could use it as energy, which we did on Saturday by getting the pole position, which was a big statement toward the race on Sunday.

“I felt it would be an easier race starting from the front and trying to get away from potential incidents with any other competitors. Then we started racing and the car was phenomenal. It was just a matter of controlling the race. Will had a mechanical issue and that was the championship right there, but it was then about completing it, really unleashing the beast and go for the win for Team Penske and I was very proud to be able to do that.”

Pagenaud was dominant, leading 76 of 85 laps.

“It just showed our strength all year,” Pagenaud said. “It was a domination day and it kind of showed the whole season, really. We just showed what we’re all about, the No. 22 team. I’m so proud of my guys. They made zero mistakes on pit lane this year. They’ve been incredible on the pit stops, strategy has been great.

“It’s been a story of a dream team and I’m real fortunate to be in this position. Seven poles, five wins, definitely beyond expectations. Before the season we talked about trying to get three wins maybe. Now, five is unreal, incredible. We’ll remember this season for a long time.”

Pagenaud caught the eye of team owner Roger Penske years ago when he won his first career race on Belle Isle in 2013 while driving for Sam Schmidt, then winning again later that year at Baltimore to finish third in points.

Penske brought Pagenaud on board last year and he struggled in making the transition to the powerhouse team, finishing 11th in points with a season-best finish of third on Belle Isle.

“This is huge,” Pagenaud said of winning for Penske. “It’s incredible to be part of this, the 50th-year anniversary of Penske Racing. Obviously when you drive for a team like this you’re expected to win and we did that job this year so I couldn’t be happier, proud of my job and the people surrounding me.

“The resources that the team has and the preparation over the winter is second to none here. I’ve never seen a team prepare so much for a championship and the Indy 500 so that’s what is so special about Roger. He’s able to assemble the right people together and he puts his heart into it. He’s a racer. He loves it and we try to win for him.

“This (championship) has taken the pressure off my back now. Obviously, what’s next is looking to try and contend for the win at the Indy 500, which is the biggest race in the world and that will be my next goal.”

No doubt, Penske has enjoyed tremendous success at Indy, including three Indy 500 wins by Helio Castroneves and an Indy 500 win by Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015.

Still, Pagenaud has something Castroneves has yet to accomplish during his 17 years with Penske — an IndyCar series championship, and that’s worth bragging about.