If you were to map out a blueprint for a championship-winning IndyCar season, it would probably look something like this: win a few races, complete every lap, and average a top five finish across the year. Except that Simon Pagenaud did exactly that in 2017, and it still wasn’t enough.
In an era of deep fields and close competition, consistency matters – but as a critical foundation for victories, rather than as a means to a championship in itself. Josef Newgarden earned four wins to Pagenaud’s two this year, although Pagenaud managed to offset that to some degree by claiming one of his victories at double-points-paying Sonoma.
It shines a light on the importance of moments like Newgarden’s robust pass on Pagenaud at Gateway: a race that Newgarden ultimately went on to win. And from Pagenaud’s standpoint, it demonstrates that winning an IndyCar title demands ever-climbing levels of aggression from drivers.
“This year you saw an example of exemplary consistency on our side – but it didn’t win us the championship,” Pagenaud says.
“You start to wonder, if we have a chance to win, why not be more aggressive and try to get those extra little points that are so important? It seems like winning is more important than anything these days. When you’re second going for first, it’s such a big jump in points that you might have to go for it more nowadays than you used to.”
Kyle Moyer, Pagenaud’s race strategist, agrees.
“Simon finished every single lap this year,” he says. “The last time that was done was Tony Kanaan [in 2004], and he ran way with that championship. If you sit down and say ‘OK, you’re going to finish every lap, and you’ll be in the top five at 50 percent of your races – I think his average finish was a 5.2 – that would have won the championship in any year, until the last couple of years.
“It’s just that the driver talent is so good, the teams are all so good, there’s only one way you win a championship, and that’s by winning races. And there’s not that much difference between winning and second. It’s 10 points. But at the end of the day, that 10 points is huge now.”
Or 20 points, if you’re at Sonoma. A little over a year ago, Pagenaud dominated in wine country to secure the 2016 championship, but this year he went into the finale as a relative underdog: fourth in the points, 34 markers down on Newgarden. His job was made even more difficult on Saturday, when Newgarden claimed pole while Pagenaud – with a time 0.11s slower – had to settle for third on the grid.
“I’ve been on both sides of the double-points now,” Pagenaud says. “So I can say that when you’re leading, the double-points make things very stressful – but when you’re not leading, it gives you an opportunity.”
The extra twist this year was that four of the five cars in mathematical contention for the championship belonged to Penske, a scenario that gave the team almost unprecedented tactical flexibility at Sonoma. Whatever surprises may have been in store for Sunday, the team could afford to go all the way down to Plan D and still have a reasonable expectation of bringing home the championship.
History shows us that Pagenaud won the race and Newgarden finished behind him to seal the title, but amid all of the championship excitement, Penske’s performance as a team during that afternoon was somewhat lost. The depth of planning to avoid a repeat of Juan Pablo Montoya’s surprise loss to Dixon in 2015 was impressive; the extent to which the team was able to execute it even more so.
“Everybody covered their base in a different way,” says Moyer. “Not only for themselves but also as a team – we had the base covered three different ways. After qualifying and putting some cars in front of Scott [ED: who qualified sixth], it made it so, OK, we’ve got the cars, it’s up to us to win the championship – the question is, who? And the right guy won the championship, and it was good to back him up with a second place and knock Scott back a couple [of places].
“A couple of years ago we lost the championship by one point, so [this time] we went in as a team with a really great plan. It was pretty well laid out after qualifying; who had the options to do what strategy.”
Newgarden agrees that qualifying set the tone for the remainder of the weekend, admitting that the rest of his job would have been substantially more difficult had he not performed during the Fast Six.
“We had to look at it as, if I mess up, the next person is there to pick up and make sure that we as a team secure the championship,” he says. “We were trying to strategically put everyone in a position to succeed if they needed to, down through the order. That was the game plan from the beginning.
“But qualifying changed the landscape of what the race was going to be, specifically because we put ourselves in the position to earn the right to stay up front within the team. If we didn’t do that, it would have been a very different day. I think if we’d qualified fourth, it would have worked out very differently.
“But we had pole position at the perfect time, and it made things easier [on Sunday] having teammates doing the hard work for you. If it were the other way around, it would have been a very different story…”
Instead, the ‘very different story’ was playing out in Pagenaud’s corner of the engineering meeting, where Ben Bretzman crunched some numbers and floated the idea of trying something radical: a four-stopper.
“I’d missed the pole by a little bit, and Josef did an extremely good job,” says Pagenaud. “So at that point, it was going to be very difficult to beat him at Sonoma on the same strategy.
“But the first time I heard ‘four stops’ I was like… ‘That’s never worked before’. I knew the history of every track, every year, and my first reaction was that it has never worked before. So it wasn’t my decision! But my engineer convinced me, so we decided to go for it. And with the track being such a tire degradation track, we thought that with four stops and not saving fuel, we might have a chance.”
Moyer takes up the story.
“We looked at it, and I think you lose 59s or something through doing an extra stop, so somewhere, we were going to have to make up 59s. And it is a long pitlane; it’s not like Mid-Ohio where you can dump in and dump out,” he says.
“So I was surprised how quick we were, and that we could actually pass cars, and how many people decided that they were going to do the fuel mileage run. So that worked into our favor some, but at the same time, we made up half of that in the first stint. So as soon as we made it through the first stint doing that I said, OK, end of the second stint we’re probably going to be sitting right behind [Newgarden]. Really by about halfway we knew it was our race to lose, unless the yellow came out and we all came into the pits together.”
Keys to making it work were Pagenaud essentially producing qualifying laps throughout the entire afternoon. “It was very physical; very tough to get it done, quite frankly, being at 100 percent for the whole race,” he says. And in addition to asking a lot from Pagenaud, the strategy also demanded swift passage through traffic.
“I ended up being in traffic pretty quickly, but a lot of the drivers were aware of what was going on,” Pagenaud says. “I was very aggressive with passing, and I didn’t waste any time behind people. I just went for the holes. A lot of them knew that there was a championship on the line, and a lot of the drivers were very understanding and didn’t force the issue. So I felt a lot of the time that my task was made easier because of the situation, but I also took all of my chances to get it done.”
And the ‘aggression wins championships’ moment? That came when Pagenaud and Newgarden’s strategies finally brought them together on the track just after the final round of stops, during which Pagenaud had taken his final service two laps later than his teammate, and emerged from pitlane just ahead.
Newgarden, on warm tires, was immediately on the attack: a lunge at the top of the hill that almost resulted in contact, another dive at the hairpin, and a third at the chicane before a nervous-sounding Tim Cindric got on the radio to remind him that second would be good enough for the championship.
“It was difficult because we were fighting for a championship, but were on the same team, so it was a tricky balance,” Pagenaud recalls. “Certainly at that time when I was in the lead I knew that the championship could be mine, so I was rightfully aggressive, and I also knew that if he was second he was still good to go. So I think we both knew what was going on. He tried a little bit, but it was my time to be aggressive, and it worked for the both of us, I think. It was a great battle, and a great end to a fantastic year.”
Penske’s Plan A – win the championship from pole – had worked. But so had its Plan B: roll the dice and try to win the race from the second row.
“I think if you ask Roger [Penske] and Tim, they’ll say it was one of the most impressive team days they’re ever been a part of,” Newgarden says.
“And I would say the same – I’d never been a part of something like that where we all sat down and talked about what we were going to do, and how to win this championship for the team, and then executed it flawlessly. That’s so rare in motorsports, to be able to make a plan, and stick to it, and have it execute exactly how you hoped it would.”