The last two seasons have worked out well for Indycar fans in that the winner of the final race turned out to be the winner of the series championship. That makes the podium celebration a little more festive and a little less awkward for everyone. But this year, thanks perhaps to Team Penske orders, we got the awkwardness of having one driver win the race, but all of the post-race hullabaloo about another driver.
If a tie is like kissing your sister, winning the last race of a season and not being the champion must be like. . .bear with me, I’m struggling for an age-appropriate simile here. Anyhow, it’s definitely a bittersweet victory that must be generally unsatisfying to the victor.
With that I’d like to take a moment and congratulate Pagenaud on his second win of the season, which guaranteed him the runner-up position in the standings. He and his team tried a strategy with an extra pit stop that very well could have haunted them with an untimely yellow, which would have destroyed all of the progress of those faster laps he was running to compensate for the extra pit stop. I wasn’t cheering for a particular driver at the start of the race, but it was definitely encouraging to see Pagenaud try a strategy that involved him driving as hard as he could instead of going into fuel economy mode.
“Wait, didn’t you say a few posts ago you were hoping Castroneves finally won the championship?” – The Spotter
And make no mistake, Simon Pagenaud was a legitimate winner this week. Yes, perhaps Josef Newgarden could have more aggressively attempted to pass Pagenaud on his out-lap from his final pit stop, but short of going the full Paul Tracy there wasn’t much of a chance that Newgarden would actually overtake Pagenaud. Which brings me to my gripe about tires.
It is with great pride and skill and smarts that Firestone continues to develop tires for Indycar races that “go off” at varying rates to allow for strategic racing. Generally speaking, Reds are faster with more grip, but they are designed for a faster degradation in performance than the Blacks. It’s definitely created some strategic battles over the years, for sure.
But at Sonoma the drivers noted that both sets of tires had about one good lap before they started degrading. And degrading means bits of rubber coming off the tires, often referred to as “marbles”. And when watching the race at Sonoma my wonderful HDTV showed me that by the midway point of the race the entire track was covered in marbles save for one lane slightly wider than a DW12 all the way around the circuit.
Which means if Newgarden had actually tried to pass he would have picked up all sort of marbles, and his car would have been that much more difficult to drive. The conditions for passing were abysmal, and that’s not anything new at this track. This is pretty much the reason folks on social media call it “Snore-noma”, “Snooze Point”, or as it was once known by one of the track’s previous sponsors, “Infini-yawn Raceway”.
How does this get resolved? I don’t know. Hopefully the braintrust at 16th and Georgetown is paying someone to figure this out. If not, then maybe a different track should be considered for deciding an otherwise exciting racing season.
At any rate, congratulations to Pagenaud for not just winning the event but also completing every single lap of every race this season. He didn’t win the championship and the million dollar check, but he likely saved that much in equipment compared to many of his peers.
And of course congratulations to Josef Newgarden on earning his first Indycar series championship six years after winning the Indy Lights championship. Took ya long enough, pal! (I kid, I kid.) With his mix of talent, determination, and charisma, he’s going to make a great face for the series. And by that I mean he’ll represent the sport well on his inevitable appearance on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Honorable mentions this week include:
Newgarden, who were it not for Pagenaud would have been considered the class of the field. Proof: he finished the race with nearly all of his Push to Pass remaining.
Will Power, who drove his way to the podium despite hyperextending his left knee while body surfing days before the race. If I had told you a driver was going to suffer a “body surfing injury”, he’s pretty much the only one who would do this, right?
Marco Andretti, who’s 7th-place finish made him the highest finishing Andretti Autosport entry, and I honestly can’t remember the last time that was the case.
Zachary Claman DeMelo, for not doing anything stupid in his Indycar debut at the second-most consequential race of the year.
Final lap: Old guard out, New guard in!