So much is being made about how no matter who wins the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship on Sunday, it will be a Team Penske driver.
Either Simon Pagenaud or Will Power.
But there’s two other Team Penske drivers that will also be in Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. While their teammates will be going for the championship, Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves will have plenty of incentive themselves, as well.
But for a lot of different reasons.
Castroneves comes into the race tied for third place with Scott Dixon, 104 points behind Pagenaud. Even with double points to be awarded in Sunday’s race, it’s clear Castroneves will be unable to mount a last-race rally to win the championship.
And in so doing, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner will once again come up short for the 15th consecutive season of winning the one thing he’s coveted the most: an IndyCar championship.
Still, the Brazilian driver intends on putting his best foot forward philosophically on Sunday.
“The championship is not available for us, but there is still plenty to race for,” Castroneves said. “Final points position is still up in the air, as is winning the race.
“The No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet team has been tenacious all season long and we’ll finish strong. Sonoma is a track that we’re very familiar with. It’s very challenging and we’ve had good results there.”
In 11 previous starts at the twisting road course in California’s wine country, Castroneves has one win (2008) and three overall podium finishes.
He typically qualifies well there (4.3 average), while his average finish (9.1) has taken a hit in the last two races, when he finished 18th in 2014 and 15th in 2015.
“I don’t think our finishes there the last couple of years is representative of the car we had,” Castroneves said. “I’m definitely looking forward to getting out there and closing out the season on a strong note.”
Once Sunday’s race is over, Castroneves will likely finish the season somewhere between second and fifth. It may not necessarily be the finish he wanted when the 2016 season began, but all Castroneves has to do is ask teammate Juan Pablo Montoya about how much worse of a season it could have been.
Montoya, who turns 41 on September 20, will remember 2016 for a lot of reasons – most of them bad. Currently ranked 14th heading into Sonoma, Montoya is destined to record the worst finish of his IndyCar career (as well as CART before that).
While Montoya mathematically could finish as high as 10th for the season with a good run in Sunday’s race, the odds – like this season – aren’t necessarily in his favor.
Unless he wins the race, it’s highly likely that Montoya will record his first-ever season finish outside the top 10 in his IndyCar career.
The Colombian driver has managed to reach victory lane just once in 2016: the season-opening race at St. Petersburg for the second straight season.
But whereas Montoya led the 2015 standings all season until Scott Dixon passed him in the final race for both the win and the championship, Montoya has struggled for the better part of the 2016 season.
Plus, there could be even worse news on the horizon for JPM. A number of reports and rumors have circulated in recent weeks that Montoya may not be returning to Team Penske in 2017.
Whether he does or not remains to be seen, and to his credit, Montoya is keeping his cards close to the vest. To his credit, Montoya is keeping things to himself. He won’t talk when asked about his future.
But he will talk a lot about the final race of 2016, even if it is potentially his swan song with Team Penske, as well.
“Sonoma is a great place to close out the season,” he said. “The track is challenging and competitive. It’s a place that really displays what the cars are capable of.
“We’ll have the hum by Verizon Chevy this weekend and I’m really excited about it. This season didn’t play out the way we wanted, but at the end of the day it is a championship season for Team Penske. A championship for our team was the primary goal, obviously, but getting one for the team is just behind that.”