Simon Pagenaud wasn't about to let up, even with a generous lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship heading into the last race of 2016, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The Team Penske driver continued his qualifying mastery and will start from pole position in Sunday's season finale, winning the Verizon P1 Award today at Sonoma Raceway. Pagenaud's lap of 1min 16.2565secs in the Firestone Fast Six - the third and final round of knockout qualifying - earned the Frenchman his seventh pole of the season and extended his points lead to 44 over teammate Will Power.
With Sunday's 85-lap race on the 2.385-mile, 11-turn permanent road course paying double points, Pagenaud needs to finish fifth or better in the #22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet to clinch his first career championship.
"Today I just think we just, again, showed strength," the Frenchman said, "That's what it was all about, to show if we are to win the championship, we deserved it on many points."
Pagenaud, who broke Power's 2015 track record in segment one of qualifying with a lap of 1m 16.2530s, led a Team Penske sweep of the top four qualifying positions. It provided a bookend to the season since the Penske foursome accomplished the same feat in qualifying at the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg.
"[Qualifying] was about preparing the car for the red Firestone tyres," Pagenaud explained, "We know I'm always more comfortable on those tyres, so I can always extract a little bit more from myself.
"We had good balance on the car. The first lap we put the red Firestone tyres on, I went on the radio and said, 'wow, this is going to be good.' We were able to replicate the lap time every time. Unbelievable that we could actually replicate the lap time in the Fast Six with used tyres."
Helio Castroneves, the 2008 Sonoma winner, will start second in the #3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet after logging a lap of 1m 16.4134s in the Firestone Fast Six. Juan Pablo Montoya will start third in the #2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, leaving Power, a three-time Sonoma race winner and five-time polesitter at the track, fourth in the #12 car. The 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion is the only driver who can overtake Pagenaud in the standings, but knows the task became more difficult today.
"That's all I could do in qualifying, that was everything I had and the car had," Power said, "It's a long race. I think it's going to be a race of degradation. It's going to be really interesting the way the tyres go.
"The last thing we need now is a straightforward race because Simon will be tough to beat if that's the case. Honestly, I need to win the race to win the championship, and he has to have a bad day."
The pole position is the 245th in Indy car history for Team Penske, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. Pagenaud's seven pole positions are the most in a season in the era of the current Dallara IR-12 chassis and most since Power collected eight poles in 2011.
Graham Rahal was the top non-Penske qualifier, fifth in the #15 Steak 'n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, with Ryan Hunter-Reay sixth in the #28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport. Scott Dixon, the two-time defending Sonoma winner and reigning series champion, barely missed the Firestone Fast Six and will start seventh in the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.