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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SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”