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Castroneves Fastest At Penske Coronation Weekend In Sonoma

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 17 2016
Will Power of Team Penske will start the IndyCar Series' season finale second in points to teammate Simon Pagenaud.

Will Power of Team Penske will start the IndyCar Series’ season finale second in points to teammate Simon Pagenaud.

Guaranteed the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, Team Penske is aiming to close the season in dominating fashion during the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Penske drivers Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud set the pace in the opening day of practice for Sunday’s 85-lap race on Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile/12-turn permanent road-course in Northern California. Castroneves posted Friday’s quickest lap in the last of two practice sessions at 1 minute, 16.6678-seconds/111.990 mph in the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet. That is less than a half-second off the track record set by Power a year ago.

“I love racing at Sonoma and the Hitachi Chevy was great today,” said Castroneves, the 2008 Sonoma race-winner. “We had a really good test here last week and that certainly helped. Some things were different on the track and the wind had changed from the test, but the consistency we had in the car helped us get the most out of the practice.”

Castroneves heads into the finale of Team Penske’s 50th anniversary season looking for his first victory in more than two years _ 43 starts ago at Detroit’s Belle Isle street-course in 2014. “It’s good to be on top, but you don’t get any points for leading practice,” Castroneves said. “We have to keep pushing to stay on top. It’s going to be a great day on Sunday for Team Penske and we want to end the season right _ with a win.”

Power was second on the time sheet at 1:16.7072-seconds/111.932 mph in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, with Pagenaud third at 1:16.9757-seconds/111.542 mph in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet. Pagenaud and Power are the only drivers mathematically eligible for the 2016 championship, with Pagenaud holding a 43-point advantage. The Sonoma race pays double points, with a maximum of 104 available including bonus points.

“I think we’re both experienced enough to realize that, at the end of the day, it’s going to be what it’s going to be out on the track,” said Power, the 2014 series champion. “We have a realistic shot this weekend. Everything’s got to fall into place.”

Andretti Autosport showed impressive results with all four of its drivers finishing in the top 11. Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda, was fourth at 1:17.0569-seconds/111.424 mph while teammate and reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi was fifth at 1:17.0817-seconds/111.388 mph in the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda.

“It was a positive day overall,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion. “I think we left some time on the table. We know where we have some imbalances to sort out tonight to come back and start Practice 3 and carry on into a qualifying effort.

“It’s a good platform to start from _ we’re P4 right now and it’s encouraging for the DHL team. We’ve finished second here for the last two years in a row, so we’re really hoping to climb one more step up that podium this weekend.”

Practice is set to resume Saturday at 2 p.m. (EDT, streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com), with a delayed telecast on NBC Sports Network at 5 p.m. Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying airs live at 6 p.m. on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Coverage of the season-concluding GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma starts at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Earlier Friday, title contenders Pagenaud and Power participated in a press conference. An edited transcript follows:

QUESTION: Will, you’re obviously the chaser for this race. What are your thoughts now that you’ve been on track and you really feel like you’re getting into the weekend?

WILL POWER: Yeah, really we didn’t do many laps. Only really two hard laps in that session, so…haven’t really got a feel for where we’re at, if the Honda guys are really good or not. All that stuff is going to make a difference.

I think this next session (Saturday) 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.

QUESTION: Why the limited track time? Did you go back and make changes to the car?

WILL POWER: It was cool, so that made the car a lot better. You know, the wind direction wasn’t quite right. We were trying to save some tires. It didn’t make sense to run very much.

QUESTION:  Simon, you’re coming into this weekend as the point-leader. You had several activities leading up to the week. Now that you’re here, you’ve been in a race car, what is your mentality as you are finally getting down to business?

SIMON PAGENAUD: It’s definitely the best time of the week really. It’s been for me a long week waiting. Just 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 (team founder) Roger (Penske) and the entire organization. It feels great.

Now it’s about racing. Yeah, like Will, for us, we’re just saving 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.

It’s so fast with these cars these days with the aero kit, that the temperature makes such a big difference. Also, as we know, it’s a very abrasive tarmac here, so the tires get really used up. When it gets hot, it’s even more the case. It will change as the day goes on.

QUESTION: You mentioned it’s nice to be competing with your teammate because you know, regardless of what happens, Team Penske is going to get the championship. There has to be a bit of an awkward sense to it. Do you sense that at all?

SIMON PAGENAUD: No, I don’t feel awkward. I want to be the one winning for sure, and Will does, too. It’s great for Team Penske to win, but I do want to get this title. We’ve had a great season. I think first and foremost, even before this weekend starts, it’s just how great the season has been on the No. 22 car, the evolution compared to last year. The transition is done compared to being with Schmidt (Peterson Motorsports) before.

Couldn’t be happier to be where we’re at right now. Like I said, I’m going to embrace the weekend and enjoy it.

QUESTION: Will, you’ve battled for the title with Dario (Franchitti) a couple times, Scott (Dixon), Ryan Hunter-Reay. Now you’re battling your teammate. Is it easier to have to challenge someone within your team? Do you feel less pressure than fighting a team on the outside?

WILL POWER: I think what it does, it takes out the fact that you can have a teammate help you when you’re competing against someone else. I guess at the end of the day we’re just both racing hard to get the championship. Everyone else is out of the equation, too, so that makes it different, as well. We need to get this championship for the team. We know we’ve got it now, it’s between Simon and I.

Yeah, a little different. I guess last year, I was definitely further away last year when I had a shot at it. But we have a realistic shot this weekend. Everything’s got to fall into place. But, yeah, they’re all different.

QUESTION: Simon, how concerning is it that this is the last race of the season, guys are fighting for jobs? How do you manage that in the race?

SIMON PAGENAUD: I mean, 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. But I think you just race like you usually do. Everybody is going to race like you usually do. Why changing right now? There’s no reason to do that.

But you do need to know where you’re running around, that’s for sure. We’ll see. Obviously, yeah, 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.

QUESTION: Simon, how much information do you want to get in your ears during the race of where Will is running?

SIMON PAGENAUD: It’s important, for sure. In the meantime, like I said, it’s about going racing. It’s about not worrying too much about points. That’s how you can lose it, just by worrying too much where he is, where I am, what’s going on. At the end of the day it’s about doing the best you can. And doing the best you can with a Penske car, you should be running up-front. That’s really what I’m going to focus on.

QUESTION: Tim Cindric (Team Penske President) said it was business as usual. Can either one of you give me an example of how it hasn’t been business as usual this week, but just between you two? Has it been business as usual or maybe you didn’t talk once or twice where you would have normally?

WILL POWER: Yeah, had a bit of a punch-out yesterday, but apart from that it has been business as normal. No, seriously, it’s been business absolutely as normal. It really has. It’s pretty funny how relaxed it is. I think we’re both experienced enough to realize that at the end of the day it’s going to be what it’s going to be out on the track. Doing anything out of the car isn’t going to make a difference, apart from working with your engineer. I mean, it’s just a normal weekend for me. It really feels that way.

QUESTION: Will, when you and Simon were teammates in ’06 coming up in Champ Car, did you envision that a weekend like this would ultimately happen?

WILL POWER: Yeah, I would say when we were teammates in 2007 that would be the case actually, yeah. We’re both pretty competitive. I would have expected this probably sooner, honestly. But obviously we went different paths for a while there and kind of ended up back here. But yes.

QUESTION: What was Simon like back then?

WILL POWER: Well, it was a pretty intense relationship at that point. We were actually good friends off the track. But it was intense in the engineering office, the young guy trying to make it. But, yeah, it’s definitely mellowed quite a bit.

QUESTION: Will, how different is your mindset already having a championship in play, whereas the previous years you’ve been in championship contention, you were coming down to the last race?

WILL POWER: I think at this point if I hadn’t won one, I probably would have just been like, ‘I’m not going to win one.’ I said that in ’14 actually. I went into ’14, ‘I’m not going to win a championship, so who cares?’ 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, I get it. Racing gods just want to play with you a little.’

QUESTION: How much less pressure is there because Roger has the title locked? You don’t all have to worry about that.

WILL POWER: I think it’s a good situation, a great situation. After what happened last year, just no way we could let that happen again. It was just such a pity, that we allowed Ganassi (Racing) to get that title (with Dixon over Juan Pablo Montoya). Yeah, it was unfortunate how it happened. But it didn’t need to happen. We were very determined to make sure it didn’t happen this year. It’s a relief that we can just go and race.

QUESTION:  Do you think Roger would crowd-surf to mark the championship?

WILL POWER: I don’t think I’d see Roger do that, definitely no. Maybe if we were at a deficit to Dixon, we won by a draw, maybe Roger would have gone out there. Maybe Cindric might have gone crowd-surfing. But he’s pretty cool about this one.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 17 2016
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