Pagenaud captures pivotal final pole of 2016 at Sonoma (VIDEO)

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SONOMA, Calif. – It was a Team Penske party in the final qualifying session of the year for the Verizon IndyCar Series, ahead of Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

And among the quartet of Team Penske Chevrolets, championship leader Simon Pagenaud emerged with the Verizon P1 Award at the 2.385-mile Sonoma Raceway, his seventh of the season in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Team Penske Chevrolet.

Pagenaud entered the weekend with a 43-point lead and it will go to 44 over Will Power, who will start fourth as part of a Penske 1-2-3-4. If the French native finishes fifth or better on Sunday, he’ll take home his first championship regardless of Power’s result.

“It’s very gratifying. But we’ve been working on making the car as good as it could be on reds (tires). Every time we put them on, it’s a dream,” Pagenaud told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis after setting a lap time of 1:16.2565 that edged Helio Castroneves for the top spot.

The other time a Penske 1-2-3-4 qualifying effort occurred this season was at the 2016 opener at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, when Power led Pagenaud, Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Castroneves will start from the second position in Sunday’s race, while Montoya will start third, ahead of Power.

Meanwhile Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay upheld Honda’s honor and will start fifth and sixth respectively.

The session report as it transpired is below:

In Q1, Group 1, all three Penske cars in the group advanced. Pagenaud’s 1:16.2530 lap was a new track record, and he ended ahead of Montoya (1:16.3092), Sebastien Bourdais (1:16.6615), Josef Newgarden (1:16.6943), Power (1:16.8252) and Charlie Kimball (1:16.8491).

Those knocked out included Tony Kanaan, who is among those going for third in the championship, the pair of A.J. Foyt Enterprises drivers (Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth) and two young Americans in Spencer Pigot and Conor Daly.

The “Hunger Games” type scenario that saw all four Andretti Autosport cars in the second group saw Ryan Hunter-Reay and Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi advance, with Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz knocked out.

Hunter-Reay clocked a 1:16.4993 to lead the group, ahead of Helio Castroneves, Mikhail Aleshin, Graham Rahal, Rossi and Scott Dixon, who only barely advanced.

Those knocked out included Andretti, Munoz, Max Chilton, James Hinchcliffe and RC Enerson, the latter of whom had his first really tough qualifying session in three IndyCar races.

Both Andretti and Hinchcliffe felt aggrieved with their underperformance. Andretti told NBCSN that a misfire cost him two tenths and he missed by half a tenth; Hinchcliffe told NBCSN the grip level fell off and by Turn 7, his ARROW Honda “wouldn’t turn.”

In Q2, the quartet of Team Penske drivers all made it through to the Firestone Fast Six for the third time this season (St. Petersburg, Long Beach). Americans Rahal and Hunter-Reay in a pair of Hondas were the interlopers.

Scott Dixon missed by 0.0032 of a second in seventh in the group, ahead of Alexander Rossi, with his third top-10 start of the year, Sebastien Bourdais – who felt he mistimed his final run – Josef Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin and Charlie Kimball for his 100th start. Aleshin was one spot shy of his sixth straight top-10 starting appearance, with a pole at Pocono joined by four other starts between ninth and 10th.

In the Firestone Fast Six, Dixon pegged Castroneves as the favorite because he had an extra set of sticker reds in reserve.

Castroneves shot to the provisional pole early with a 1:16.4134, then waited to see whether anyone beat him.

And Pagenaud did, on Firestone reds, beating Castroneves with a time of 1:16.2565.

SONOMA, Calif. – Qualifying Saturday for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma Verizon IndyCar Series event 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)