IndyCar: Team Penske coming to terms with championship loss

Juan Pablo Montoya had led the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship all the way up to the season finale but lost on a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon.

Eric Risberg/AP

SAN FRANCISCO – Team Penske has earned its reputation as the most successful IndyCar team of all-time because of its impeccable preparation, organization to detail and ability to execute a game plan. The way Team Penske threw away its chances to win the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship was totally “Un-Penske-Like.”

Juan Pablo Montoya was in control of the championship after leading the standings every race since the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida in March. He was attempting to become the first driver since Sebastien Bourdais’ Champ Car title in 2006 to lead the championship from start to finish in a season.

But on a Lap 39 restart, 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power – Montoya’s teammate – cut in front of him at Sonoma Raceway. Montoya’s Chevrolet ran into the back of Power’s car and both racers suffered damage. Montoya’s front wing had to be replaced and Power had to repair damage to the rear of his car and that dropped both drivers all the way back to 21st and 22nd in the 25-car field.

Scott Dixon, who entered the race third in points, 47 behind the Montoya, drove a fabulous race and knew he had to win the race and lead the most laps and hope for the best. As long as Montoya didn’t get back up to fifth, Dixon would win the championship.

Montoya got as high as sixth when Dixon took the checkered flag. Both drivers finished in a tie and Dixon claimed the championship based on tiebreaker – three wins for Dixon to two for Montoya.

“As I told you, it could happen, and it happened,” Montoya said after Sunday’s race. “It sucks, but when you make double points the last race in a road course and you change the tire and you do everything you did for this weekend and you put so many variables, it doesn’t even matter what you do all year.

“Dixon had a (crap) season all year and had one good race, and we paid the penalty.”

Montoya won the season-opening street race at St. Petersburg and won the 99th Indianapolis 500. The 500 paid double points, as did Sunday’s Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Both Montoya and Power complained that Dixon’s championship came because of the double-points season finale – a head-scratcher considering Montoya’s double-points win at Indianapolis kept him in the points lead.

“Juan needs to realize if there were no double points for the Indianapolis 500 or at Sonoma I would have won the championship by three points,” Dixon said Monday morning in San Francisco. “I’m not surprised that he is complaining today.”

Montoya accepted the disappointment of losing the championship in the very last race of the season. As he was leaving the Sonoma Raceway and walked into the Team Penske office trailer in the paddock, Power said to him, “I’m really sorry, man.”

Montoya, on the top step of the stairs looked at him and said, “You owe me.”

Boom, confetti! Dixon's IndyCar championship celebration in photos

Power tried to explain his role in the untimely set of circumstances that cost both drivers a chance at the championship. Prior to that, Power had been up front after starting on the pole.

“It is an absolute lottery,” Power said. “I feel horrible for Juan. Josef (Newgarden) went up on the inside and I went to switch back off of him and I damaged Juan’s wing. Then the yellow started and that set the day there. Before that we were all in good shape there. 

“But I want to say congratulations to Scott (Dixon) and obviously a very close finish there. But most importantly, I want to say that the Verizon Chevy boys did a great job this year and we’ll look forward to coming back next year and going for the Championship again."

Montoya qualified fifth on Saturday alongside Graham Rahal, who entered the race second in the standings 34 behind Montoya for the lead. Rahal would struggle in the race while Dixon was able to drive from 11th to the lead just past midway.

After Montoya’s incident with his teammate, it was remarkable that he made it all the way to sixth place.

“We had a good car,” Montoya said. “We had a good start, and you know, we did everything we needed to do at the beginning. Will (Power) overshot and I was fighting with (Josef) Newgarden, we shot the corner, we got inside and (Will) cut across and I was there, and we touched and that was it. We came from behind and did our best, just wasn’t enough. It’s tough there, tires are going off, and it’s one of those days.

“We did what we needed to do, and we ran as hard as we could, and that was it.

“I had like 45 laps to figure it out, or 50 laps or something. So no, it wasn’t that hard. I did everything I could. I drove my butt off as hard as I could. Just luck of the draw, I guess.”

Despite losing the championship, Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in his career.

“We had a great year,” he admitted. “We opened the year with a win and we won the Indy 500 and led the points all year. It would have been great if we could close it, and there were so many variables, we got through Mid‑Ohio and here again, and that’s what it is. It’s racing, and we move on.”

Montoya was a fan of double points at Indianapolis. On Sunday, not so much.

Well, we’ll see if they change it, but they like the excitement for the last race,” Montoya said. “Is it fair?  No, but we go into the last race of the year knowing it’s a double‑points race. Is it fair for a normal championship? No, it’s not fair, but it’s the rules they want to play with, and if you don’t like the rules, don’t race.”

Team owner Roger Penske didn’t become the most successful team owner in history without being totally prepared. That is why it was so unusual to hear him try to explain what went wrong at the very end of the season.

“It was a good race; Dixon ran a good race and winning this race gave him the advantage,” Penske said. “It’s unfortunate our guys got together. It’s another day. We had a great year. We won the Indy 500. We’ll move on.

“These guys were racing. It was an accident. It looked like Juan wanted to get inside and Will didn’t see him. At the end of the day it’s over and we move on. We had a great season.”

“Ganassi is a great team and I give them credit for what they did.”

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