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Simon Pagenaud wins 1st IndyCar title in banner Penske year

Associated Press Associated Press 19/09/2016 By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
Simon Pagenaud, of France, holds up the Astor Cup after winning the IndyCar auto race and IndyCar championship as team owner Roger Penske, lower right, looks on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Sonoma, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) © The Associated Press Simon Pagenaud, of France, holds up the Astor Cup after winning the IndyCar auto race and IndyCar championship as team owner Roger Penske, lower right, looks on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Sonoma, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SONOMA, Calif. — In a yearlong celebration of Roger Penske's 50th season in racing, Simon Pagenaud brought yet another championship to trophy to one of the most storied organizations in motorsports.

The Frenchman won his first career IndyCar title in his sophomore season driving for Penske, and did it in dominating fashion by winning the season finale Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

Pagenaud only needed a smooth race to put a wrap on this breakthrough season.

Instead, he picked up his fifth win of the year and led a strong Penske finish to the final podium. The Penske team went 1-2-3 in the final series standings, the first team to do so since another Penske trio pulled off the sweep in 1994.

"That was a strong run and I take my hat off to the entire team," Penske said.

A 14th IndyCar title — and 29th in various forms of motorsports — was guaranteed at the start of the race because only Pagenaud and teammate Will Power were mathematically eligible to win the title.

Pagenaud entered the weekend 43 points ahead of Power, but earned an additional point for winning the pole. Then he led the most laps and won a race that was worth double points in the standings.

"What I'm thinking about right now is, it's been a long career," Pagenaud said. "You start, seven years old. You go through a lot. I remember my first race in France in a go-kart. It was raining. I had my visor open because I had the wrong helmet.

"I still have that picture at home. The ground I covered since is quite incredible. I just feel so blessed to being a human that has been able to live his dream and get to this. I basically accomplished all the dreams I had."

Pagenaud's performance was a moot point, though: Power had mechanical issues 38 laps into the race that sealed the outcome.

"Obviously I saw Will slowing down, which I wanted this fight to go all the way," Pagenaud said. "It was a bit of a relief, I have to say. I feel sorry for his luck."

Probably needing to win to unseat Pagenaud, Power instead finished 20th. Pagenaud's final margin was 127 points, the largest points win since Alex Zanardi defeated teammate Jimmy Vasser by 119 points in 1998.

"It was pretty realistic considering it was (worth) double points," Power said. "It's just how it flows, when it's your year, it's your year, and Simon has done a phenomenal job to lead a 1-2-3 finish."

Power finished second in the standings, Helio Castroneves was third and Chevrolet won its fifth consecutive manufacturer title since its return to IndyCar in 2012.

"Throughout the entire season, he was not only an amazing driver but a champion," Castroneves said of teammate Pagenaud. "Really honored to be working with a guy like that. The whole team was a dream to work with and today was the proof of that."

It's the fourth time Power has finished second in the standings, but it was easy to swallow because he won his only title in 2014. And, he missed the season opening race this year when IndyCar ruled him out with concussion-like symptoms — it was an inner ear infection — so climbing back into title contention was somewhat of a victory.

"If I hadn't won a championship, I guess it would be a pretty bad day," Power said. "But finishing second, considering how I started the year, getting four wins, it's a good year."

A year after losing the title in the final race — Juan Pablo Montoya led the standings wire-to-wire, but a Scott Dixon win in the finale cost Penske the championship on a tie-breaker — the Penske organization cruised to the top of the series. The combination of Pagenaud, Power and Montoya won 10 of the 16 races.

Across all motorsports, Penske this year also achieved its 500th pole, its 100th victory in NASCAR's top Sprint Cup Series, and now an additional championship. The Penske team still has another shot: Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano both had top-five finishes Sunday in the opening race of NASCAR's playoffs.

GOODBYE TARGET: Scott Dixon didn't give sponsor Target the send-off it had hoped after 27 years in IndyCar.

Dixon started the day tied for third in the standings and trying to keep his streak of finishing third or better in the standings every year since 2007.

But he had radio issues, had to change his helmet during a caution, and finished 17th. It dropped him to sixth in the final standings. It's the lowest Dixon has finished since 2005.

MONTOYA MOVING ON?: If Sunday was the final race for Montoya driving for Penske, he closed out his tenure on a strong note.

Montoya finished third at Sonoma to bookend the year with podium finishes. He won the season-opener at St. Pete, but had a significant drop-off the rest of the way.

Although Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for Penske last year, the team owner is unsure if he'll bring the Colombian back next year. Penske hopes to make a decision within 60 days on if he'll field a fourth car, and who will drive it, and Montoya doesn't believe the door is closed yet on a return.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Alexander Rossi finished fifth on Sunday to lock up top rookie honors for the IndyCar season.

Rossi won the Indianapolis 500 for a huge bright spot on a season he otherwise believes failed to live up to expectations. Rossi had just one podium all year.

He's yet to announce his 2017 plans, and his name began to surface Sunday as a possible Penske driver next year.

"Wouldn't that be nice," Rossi said after the race.

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