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Pruett's Preview: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

It has taken seven months and 15 races to get to the incredible point in time where the Verizon IndyCar Series is ready to crown its newest champion. Sonoma Raceway hosts the finale for the second year running (GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), and we already know the name of the team that will come away with IndyCar’s most valuable season-long prize. 

The big question left to answer across 85 laps under the wine country sun in Northern California is whether Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud or Will Power will be celebrating into the night on Sunday with thousands of diehard open-wheel fans.

Pared down to the Penske teammates after Watkins Glen, Sonoma is the site of an all-Penske showdown, and with double points on offer, Pagenaud’s 43-point lead over Power could be turned into a deficit by the time the checkered flag waves.

One day, one race, on a road course where passing is notoriously hard and with a million dollars on the line. I don’t envy Simon or Will, or the 20 other drivers who could affect the outcome of the championship by triggering a caution at an inopportune time or, even worse, make contact with the championship contenders.

“It is the million-dollar question, and I tell you why,” Pagenaud said of how he should approach the most important race of his life. “The biggest issue here is that this is not Formula 1 where the race flows from beginning to end. It’s the Verizon IndyCar Series. The yellow can come out anytime and you could be leading and be in big trouble. You could go into the race thinking ‘I’m just going to take this race, I’m just going to take this championship and go on and win it’ and it could all change against you in a heartbeat. So what do you do?”

With his first championship in sight, and Power in pursuit of his second, the teammates have the same goal but it’s fair to say their motivations are different. Achieving that breakthrough—becoming an IndyCar champion for the first time—would elevate Pagenaud to the elite status shared by Power, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais, Juan Montoya, and Ryan Hunter-Reay. And without it, he’ll go into another season trying to join the exclusive club. 

The Frenchman’s approach to Sonoma could, as he admits, make the difference between elation and heartbreak.

“Like in Toronto, you might be doing the best you can all weekend and you could lose it just on the strategy,” he said. “So do you just go into Sonoma and hope for the best and you are not going to be unlucky, or do you just go and try to make sure that you cover all those things you can cover by having a strategy that will not allow for any bad luck?

“It is a really tough one. I wish I could go out and race and not worry about anything, but I could lose it that way too. So I think it is about being smart. And depending on my position in the race, I will have to adjust the approach.” 

Power earned pole position for the Sonoma race in 2015 and set the fastest lap of the race, which is worth considering when qualifying arrives on Saturday. With passing coming at a premium, making it through to the Firestone Fast Six will be critical for both drivers, and while the outcome for the rest of the field will be of interest, the duel between Pagenaud and Power for the best starting position is guaranteed to produce some fireworks.

“Qualifying is always important at Sonoma, and this year it has even more meaning,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously, if we are not good in qualifying, which I don’t think is going to happen, that would help because then you could go racing. If you are on pole, or leading, then you have the risk of the yellow, then what do you do? I just don’t know at this point. We will have to see where we are in qualifying.  

“Do you just start pitting early on every window and get past the pit sequence? It is a very complicated balance. That is why I have a great group with me and they are going to be able to help me with that. And what I want to do is just being able to focus on my driving and then they can focus on the race.”

As complicated as life will be for the Penske duo this weekend, Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma will eventually settle into a winner-takes-all dynamic for Pagenaud and Power. If Power can finish far ahead of Pagenaud and erase the 43-point advantage, he wins. If Pagenaud can finish ahead of Power, or somewhat close behind and maintain that points advantage, he’s the champion. 

Strategy and bad luck aside, Penske’s finest need to race without compromise and see where they end up after 85 laps.

“Will is the only guy we have to race,” Pagenaud added. “But you have to focus on yourself too and just do the best you can with what you have. At this point we are only racing one guy, not three guys. So the way to win the championship is just to beat Will, nobody else.”

I can’t wait for Sunday.

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