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Pagenaud In Prime Position To Win 1st Title

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 18 2016
Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud will begin Sunday's IndyCar Series championship deciding race from the front of the field. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud will begin Sunday’s IndyCar Series championship deciding race from the front of the field. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Simon Pagenaud will chase his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship from a position of strength _ P1, baby _ following a record-setting performance during qualifications for Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

bugindynotesThe Team Penske ace added to his qualifying mastery Saturday, claiming the pole at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California. Pagenaud’s lap of 1 minute, 16.2565-seconds/112.594 mph during the Firestone Fast Six _ the third and final round of knockout qualifying _ earned the Frenchman his seventh pole of the season and extended his point lead from 43 to 44 over teammate Will Power.

With Sunday’s 85-lap race on the 2.385-mile/11-turn permanent road-course paying double points, Pagenaud needs to finish fifth or better to clinch his first career championship and cap team-founder/owner Roger Penske’s 50th anniversary season in style.

“Today I just think we just, again, showed strength,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 22 Chevrolet. “That’s what it was all about _ to show if we are to win the championship, we deserved it on many points.”

Pagenaud _who broke Power’s 2015 track record in Segment 1 of qualifying with a lap of 1:16.2530-seconds/112.599 mph _ led a Team Penske sweep of the top four qualifying positions. That provided a bookend to the season, as the Penske foursome accomplished the same feat in qualifying at the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Fla.) in mid-March.

Helio Castroneves, the 2008 Sonoma winner, will start second in the No. 3 Team Penske

Sunday's race at Sonoma Raceway is a biggie for Frenchman Simon Pagenaud.

Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway is a biggie for Frenchman Simon Pagenaud.

Chevrolet after logging a lap of 1:16.4134-seconds/112.362 mph in the Firestone Fast Six. Juan Pablo Montoya will start third in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet after lapping at 1:16.5400-seconds/112.177 mph. Power, a three-time Sonoma race-winner and five-time pole-sitter at the track, was fourth in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet at 1:16.6659-seconds/111.992 mph.

“(Qualifying) was about preparing the car for the red Firestone tires,” Pagenaud said, “which we know I’m always more comfortable on those tires so I can always extract a little bit more from myself. We had good balance on the car. The first lap we put the red Firestone tires on, I went on the radio and said, ‘Wow, this is going to be good!’ We were able to replicate the lap time every time. Unbelievable that we could actually replicate the lap time in the Fast Six with used tires.

“Certainly I did everything I could by challenging every high-speed corner that I could. I was on the edge, but it was a really good lap. Super proud of these guys. The guys on the No. 22 team _ seven poles this season, four wins. No matter what happens (Sunday), it’s been an incredible season.”

Needing only that fifth-place finish to clinch, Pagenaud said his race will be all about strategy. “I really am worried about that,” said Pagenaud, who collaborates with strategist Kyle Moyer and engineer Ben Bretzman. “Strategy is just an outside factor that we can’t control. I’ve had issues this year, some mechanical issues. What if it happens again? Can’t control that. That would be so unfortunate.

“It is what it is at the end of the day. Strategy, as well. A yellow that comes at the really wrong time for me…I think we need to err on the safe side, even if it’s to finish second. I think it’s OK as long as we win the championship. Let me tell you, it’s a good position, but it’s also a bad position because I can’t control what’s going to happen behind, when people are going to start to pit. I can’t see what anyone is going to do. I’m going to go through Turn 11 and people can pit behind me. I can’t control that.

“We are going to have to be the leader of any strategy, really. We’re going to have to have a strong discussion on what we need to do to make sure we don’t take risks, because we’re not in position to take too many risks on strategy, but also that we can secure it. That’s the biggest thing.”

Chief among his concerns, Pagenaud said, will be tire degradation and traffic. “The tires here suffer a lot,” Pagenaud said. “There are so many hairpins and traction out of the corners. We have a lot more power than we used to. More horsepower right now. It’s asking a lot of the tires. It’s an old tarmac, as well, with a lot of dust on it, so it creates a lot of wear.

“We did a long run in Practice No. 2 (Friday). I said that’s the best car I’ve had here in terms of degradation. In that sense, I feel comfortable with what I have. It’s hard to know who is going to be strong and who is not going to be strong. There will be cars that were not good in qualifying that might be good in the race. We’ll have to see.”

Power, the 2014 series champion and only driver who could overtake Pagenaud, admitted the task became more difficult via Saturday’s qualifying results.

“That’s all I could do in qualifying, that was everything I had and the car had,” Power said. “It’s a long race. I think it’s going to be a race of degradation. It’s going to be really interesting the way the tires go. Last thing we need now is a straightforward race because Simon will be tough to beat if that’s the case. Honestly, I need to win the race to win the championship, and he has to have a bad day.”

Pagenaud earned the 245th pole in Indy car history for Team Penske. In addition, Pagenaud’s seven poles are the most in a season in the era of the current Dallara IR-12 chassis and most since Power collected eight poles in 2011.

Graham Rahal was the top non-Penske qualifier, placing fifth in the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 1:16.7149-seconds/111.921 mph. Ryan Hunter-Reay was sixth in the No. 28 Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport at 1:16.9132-seconds/111.632 mph.

Scott Dixon, two-time defending Sonoma winner and four-time/reigning series champion, barely missed reaching the Firestone Fast Six and will start seventh in the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

A final 30-minute warmup practice is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. (EDT) Sunday (streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com). Coverage of the 16th and final race of the 2016 season to determine who will be presented the Astor Cup and earn a $1-million prize begins at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) Sunday on NBC Sports Network and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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INDYCAR has placed a freeze on aero kit development for manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda in preparation for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Manufacturers will run their current aero kit specs next season as INDYCAR prepares to introduce a universal aero kit for the start of the 2018 season.

“This decision focused on what is best for the future of the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations. “This is an integral component to INDYCAR’s long-term plan to continue to produce the highest quality of on-track competition while also positioning ourselves to add additional engine manufacturers.”

Aero kit regulations were initially announced in 2013 and introduced into on-track competition in 2015. The kits featured aerodynamic bodywork components that were designed, manufactured and supplied by Chevrolet and Honda for road/street/short oval courses and a separate kit for superspeedways.

“The 2018 car is a tremendous opportunity for INDYCAR and the design collaboration is already underway,” Frye said. “The goal of the universal car is to be great-looking, less aero-dependent, have more potential for mechanical grip/downforce and to incorporate all the latest safety enhancements.”

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INDYCAR’s testing regulations for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season are highlighted by four open tests during the season and an overall reduction in the amount of in-season testing.

INDYCAR will conduct the following open tests next year: Feb. 10-11 at Phoenix International Raceway; March 21 at Barber Motorsports Park; May 2 at Gateway Motorsports Park and Sept. 14 at Sonoma Raceway _ the same week as the season-finale in 2017.

“We collaborated with all of our teams on the 2017 testing regulations with the goal of minimizing the amount of in-season testing,” said Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations. “The majority of testing will take place at a series of open tests, which have been strategically routed to coincide with our race schedule. As we finalized our regulations, the focus was on making our test schedule more efficient and minimizing the overall demands on the crews during the year. We’re confident that this is a positive step forward for the Verizon IndyCar Series.”

The in-season testing window runs from April 11-Sept. 17, 2017, with teams permitted one test day _ in addition to open tests _ within that time frame. The offseason testing window for the 2017 IndyCar Series season begins Oct. 3, 2016, with teams permitted three test days from the start of the testing window until April 6, 2017 _ which allows teams to utilize the break between the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (March 12) and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 9).

Teams may earn additional test days by running a rookie driver (up to four days) for the season, a current Indy Lights driver (one day) or operating an Indy Lights team under the same ownership as the IndyCar Series team (one day). New teams entering the Verizon IndyCar Series would be allowed up to four additional test days.

Tire testing comes at the request of Firestone, official tire supplier to the series. Any tire test is limited to two days, either in-season or offseason, with no more than two teams participating. All teams are permitted to have one car conduct team testing during an in-season tire test. Engine testing for Chevrolet and Honda is limited to two days for each manufacturer in the offseason window.

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GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma qualifying results Saturday on the 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:16.2565 (112.594) 
2. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:16.4134 (112.362)
3. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 01:16.5400 (112.177)
4. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:16.6659 (111.992)
5. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:16.7149 (111.921)
6. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:16.9132 (111.632)
7. (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 01:16.5700 (112.133)
8. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:16.5840 (112.112)
9. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 01:16.6115 (112.072)
10. (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:16.8142 (111.776)
11. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 01:16.8909 (111.665)
12. (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 01:16.9627 (111.561)
13. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 01:16.9481 (111.582) 
14. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:16.9288 (111.610)
15. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:16.9661 (111.556)
16. (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 01:17.0314 (111.461)
17. (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 01:17.0823 (111.387)
18. (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 01:17.1310 (111.317)
19. (20) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:17.3052 (111.066)
20. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:17.1926 (111.228)
21. (18) Conor Daly, Honda, 01:17.6771 (110.535)
22. (19) RC Enerson, Honda, 01:17.3264 (111.036)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 18 2016
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