Strategy nets Pagenaud Sonoma win, but he falls short in title fight

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Simon Pagenaud was the only driver among the leaders during the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to try something different, going with a four-stop pit strategy as opposed to three stops, which most of the field, especially the front runners, utilized. And while it was enough to put him in Victory Lane for his second win of the season, it wasn’t enough for him to claim his second consecutive Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Pagenaud’s strategy became very apparent early on, as he was the first of the leaders to pit on Lap 11. Pitting that early meant there was no chance for him to make it on three stops, so it was obvious that he and the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet team were going to complete the race on a four-stop strategy.

From there, Pagenaud and team hoped that the race ran without incident, as a caution would potentially doom their efforts. In the end, the caution-free race allowed their strategy to play out exactly according to plan.

Simon Pagenaud was the only front-runner to use a four-stop strategy at Sonoma. Photo: Indycar

Pagenaud emerged in the lead on Lap 22 after the rest of the field pitted before he made his next stop on Lap 30. He again led on Lap 44 after the rest of field made their stops, with this stint proving critical for his strategy, as he needed to build as big of a gap as possible to not lose much track position on his next stop. He pressed so hard, in fact, that he twice overshot the Turn 9 and 9A chicane and went through the dirt, but somehow didn’t lose much time.

Indeed, Pagenaud’s pace was good enough that after the third pit stop, on Lap 48, he emerged in third place. Five laps later, on Lap 53, he closed the gap to teammate Will Power and passed him for second, and then set his sights on race leader and championship leader Josef Newgarden.

Pagenaud quickly closed in, but stayed behind him until Newgarden pitted on Lap 62. Pagenaud then reeled off two quick laps to build the gap between the two drivers to just over 31 seconds, right at the pit delta for Sunday’s race.

After his final stop, on Lap 64, Pagenaud exited directly in front of Newgarden. Newgarden made a couple of attempts to pass, and had the advantage of hot red alternate tires while Pagenaud was on cold primary blacks (Pagenaud spent his previous stints on the reds and needed to finish on blacks at the end). However, Pagenaud was able to hold him off.

The gap between the two Team Penske drivers was maintained at between one and two seconds from there, but neither third-place finisher Power nor fourth-place finisher Scott Dixon got close enough to challenge for position.

In the end, the strategy call gave Pagenaud the race win, but he didn’t get the help he needed to win the championship.

Still, Pagenaud held his head high, and asserted the effort from he and the team was worthy of a championship.

Simon Pagenaud celebrated a race victory, but it wasn’t quite enough to secure him the 2017 IndyCar championship. Photo: IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

“You know, at the end of the day, I think what is important to me is to perform at your best in those conditions. I think to me, the final champion is someone that can bring his A game or extra A game on a given time. I thought we did just that today as a team, myself as a driver, my engineer, my strategist, my guys, my crew in the pit stops. I think we did just that,” Pagenaud explained.

In fact, Pagenaud’s pace on four stops even took him by surprise, most notably in the second stint. “I was really surprised on the second stint how strong we were compared to everybody. We were able to pass a lot of cars and made some very aggressive passes, and it was starting to really work,” he revealed.

In the end, Pagenaud detailed that he has a lot of things to be proud of this season, most notably that he and the team completed every lap in the 2017 season.

“Mechanically we had zero problems this year, no mechanical issues,” Pagenaud detailed. “Chevy has been incredible in terms of reliability. Also my team, we never had an issue during the race, barely any — I don’t think we had any problems in the pits at all. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes, didn’t break a wing, didn’t have any contact at any point. So we finished every single lap of the season, which I don’t know the stats, but that’s insane, I think, and I’m very, very proud of that

Results of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma are below.

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GAINSCO partners with JDC-Miller for Simpson, Goikhberg

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The bright yellow No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson, nicknamed the “JDC Banana Boat,” will morph into the latest incarnation of the bright red “Red Dragon” for 2018.

The now GAINSCO Auto Insurance-backed No. 99 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson will run the full 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, and the new livery will be revealed at the Roar before the Rolex 24.

GAINSCO revealed last month it wouldn’t run its own team, having partnered with Bob Stallings Racing for more than a decade with great success in GRAND-AM Rolex Series competition. But it was still going to partner with a team and received multiple proposals from other teams. The initial deal with JDC-Miller Motorsports is one year for 2018 with an option for 2019, but both parties envision this growing into a multi-year deal.

The last few years the team has run only on-and-off, with a one-off appearance in the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona as Alex Gurney scored pole, but a devastating accident for Memo Gidley having left him seriously injured. Gidley has made significant strides in his recovery.

Since that point, GAINSCO/BSR moved into Pirelli World Challenge, running first a Hyundai Genesis, then a McLaren 650S GT3, and then a Porsche 911 GT3 R with Gurney’s longtime co-driver Jon Fogarty. The same level of success was hard to find and while the team scored several podium finishes, wins eluded them over two years.

Alas, this provides John Church’s quality operation a major supporter both from visibility and agent standpoints, as GAINSCO is one of the biggest at-track activators in the sport. Primary drivers Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg continue for the full season with Chris Miller the third driver for Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds.

A fourth driver will be named later (likely within the next week to 10 days), but won’t be Jon Fogarty, as Bob Stallings offered him the opportunity but Fogarty declined owing to other business commitments.

“We offered Jon Fogarty the opportunity, took a couple days (to think), he couldn’t feature anyone else driving but him… he has successful business ventures and that takes priority at this time,” Stallings said.

Church and Stallings. Photo courtesy of GAINSCO Racing

Stallings, Executive Chairman of GAINSCO, as well as the founder of the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Race team, recently decided not to run his own race team, but is committed to continuing the legacy of the Red Dragon by partnering with an organization capable of a long-term winning program.

“We had many opportunities to continue our quest for championships and JDC-Miller MotorSports was an easy pick,” said Stallings of the Minnesota-based team. “John Church and John Miller have established themselves as a team to be reckoned with, even against the formidable competition in IMSA.”

“We are very honored to gain the support of GAINSCO Auto Insurance and to carry on the livery of the No. 99 Red Dragon,” Church added. “It was immediately evident that the GAINSCO folks are as committed as we are.  This is a tremendous opportunity for JDC-Miller MotorSports and we look forward to the season ahead.”

Andy Jordan, Sr. Vice President of Marketing and Business Development led the search for the GAINSCO’s 2018 racing partnership.

“We were amazed and flattered by the amount of interest we received from teams who felt their racing programs would be elevated by an opportunity to partner with us and run the famous “Red Dragon” livery.  There were several important considerations for GAINSCO; the team had to compete at the highest level, and it had to feel like the kind of family we could be a part of and believe in.

“JDC-Miller Motorsports was the team we kept coming back to.  They race prototypes, they are great people, they are committed to win and the parallels between JDC-Miller Motorsports today and GAINCSO/Bob Stallings Racing in 2006/2007 were abundant.  I couldn’t be prouder and more excited to join John and his team for the 2018 season and hopefully beyond.”

JDC-Miller is adding a second car this season, with Simon Trummer its first confirmed driver and Robert Alon having tested with the team at Daytona earlier this month. This car will maintain the “banana boat” livery and will announce the rest of its program later.

Church said there “hasn’t been a discussion” in terms of adding Bob Stallings Racing personnel to JDC-Miller’s lineup as it sits, but it could be integrated.

The JDC-Miller Oreca 07. Photo courtesy of IMSA