Josef Newgarden exits the north short chute during race day set up testing for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 23, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Newgarden was fastest with a speed of 227.414 MPH. Photo by Bill Coons/UPI | License Photo
SONOMA, Calif. -- Simon Pagenaud did what he had to do to win IndyCar's season championship Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. But so did Josef Newgarden.
Newgarden took the series title because he stayed within striking distance of Pagenaud, who needed to win the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to have his best chance to repeat as season champion.
Pagenaud and Newgarden, Team Penske teammates, finished first and second in the race, respectively. Newgarden won the series championship, allowing car owner Roger Penske to take the Astor Cup back to team headquarters in North Carolina.
Pagenaud didn't make it easy on Newgarden, who won the title in his first season with the team. Pagenaud went with a four-stop fuel strategy and used a shorter final stop to grab the lead from Newgarden. The key lap came with 23 laps to go, when Pagenaud exited in front of Newgarden.
Newgarden had the warmer tires, but he couldn't get past the Frenchman, who was making his car as wide as possible. That lap was one for the ages as Pagenaud slid around the permanent road course north of San Francisco as the tires slowly gained grip.
After that battle, Newgarden settled into second place and allowed the championship to come to him. In the scenario presented to him, he only needed to finish in the top three to achieve the season crown. The separation at the finish was 1.1 seconds.
Newgarden finished the 17-race season 13 points ahead of Pagenaud. Newgarden rebounded from a crash exiting the pits two weeks ago at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
Newgarden's voice cracked as he thought back to the commitment his family made to take him from its Nashville-area home to an Indiana go-kart track to European racing to Indy Lights to small IndyCar teams owned by Sarah Fisher, Wink Hartman and Ed Carpenter before he landed at Team Penske.
"This is unbelievable, a dream come true, and it took so much to get here," he said. "I almost don't know what to say."
Newgarden became the third Penske driver in four years to win the title; the others were Will Power in 2014 and Pagenaud last year. Before that, Team Penske's last champion was Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. The title was the 15th for the team.
Newgarden also became only the second American-born champion since Hornish; the other was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012. As an American flag draped over his shoulders, Newgarden acknowledged the significance of that.
"This means so much to me and the sport," he said. "To finally get it done is a dream come true."
Pagenaud said, "Having an American champion is really important in this sport, and Josef will be a great champion."
Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Power also went into this race with legitimate chances to win the championship, but they did not have the speed on this day to match Pagenaud and Newgarden.
Power finished third in the race, Dixon fourth, Castroneves fifth. The order in the standings was Dixon in third followed by Castroneves and Power.
Pagenaud won the race for the second straight year, but it wasn't always easy as he pushed the car as aggressively as he could. He twice missed the chicane at Turn 9, driving through the grass, kicking up dirt as he went. No penalty came because Pagenaud did not impede another competitor and actually lost time through the excursion.
Pagenaud said his team's strategist, Kyle Moyer, asked him about accepting a four-stop strategy as their best chance to win the championship. Pagenaud thought about it and agreed, although he recalled that it didn't work for Castroneves last year.
"We did what we had to do," Pagenaud said. "We tried. We won the race; it wasn't enough."
The fear going into the race was that there would be roughhousing in the climb up the first hill, a notoriously trouble spot for carnage. That did not happen.
Newgarden emerged with the lead with Power in arrears. Castroneves and Pagenaud were third and fourth, with Dixon jumping No. 5 starter Takuma Sato, the Indianapolis 500 winner, for that position. That put the five top championship contenders lined up for the early part of the race.
The first lap did have its issues, however. James Hinchcliffe spun in Turn 3 -- there wasn't a conclusive replay on how his car got turned around -- and Hunter-Reay created a dust storm approaching Turn 7 as he ventured through the Northern California dirt. Tony Kanaan also was slowed by wing contact as the traffic jumbled in the braking zone approaching Turn 9.
A few laps later, Sato saw his right rear tire shredded due to a lack of air pressure.
None of those incidents created a situation where race control needed to throw a full-course caution. Thus, the 85-lap race went the entire way without stoppage.
NOTES: Josef Newgarden picked the right race to win a pole for the first time this season. He led a Team Penske 1-2-3-4 in qualifying. Scott Dixon started sixth. ... Simon Pagenaud completed all 2,331 laps this year, becoming just the second driver to finish every lap in a season. Tony Kanaan also did in 2004. ... JR Hildebrand drove his final race for Ed Carpenter Racing after it was announced this week that he will be replaced in the No. 21 Chevrolet by Spencer Pigot. Rookie Zach Veach was announced as the fourth driver of Andretti Autosport, which piloted Takuma Sato in that car this year. Sato is moving to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. ... Golden State Warriors standout Klay Thompson gave the start-engines command and waved the green flag at the beginning of the race. That came a year after teammate Steph Curry attended the race.