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.

“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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Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
Michael L. Levitt/LAT/USA/IMSA
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Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”