Sonoma Preview: Cementing a Legend or First Step to a New One??

This is always the race preview I don’t enjoy writing because it’s the last one of the season. It seems this race always comes too soon. I’m positive it was only two weeks ago that I was standing on pit road at St. Petersburg with my friend Shay Hazen of Live Full Throttle when the engines came to life for the season’s first practice. Now we are at Sonoma for the finale.

Sonoma has never been a great race. The track is narrow and passing is minimal. This year’s event has some intrigue, however, due to the tight points battle. While the track puts on a great event,  this is not the best place to determine a season champion. An oval is better suited for ending the year, especially if Indycar insists on the unnecessary double points ending.

Indycar will tell you that six drivers have a chance at the Astor Cup. two of those drivers are only eligible because of the double points gimmick.  The two ahead of them are a longshot, as I’ll explain. This is really a two driver shootout between Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon. Newgarden leads Dixon by just 3 points. Dixon is going for his fifth title, while Newgarden looks to continue his quick rise to the top rank of Indycar drivers.

Let’s play along with Indycar for a moment and look at the six drivers and their chances. Alexander Rossi is 84 points behind Newgarden. His title chances depend on his repeating what he did at Watkins Glen, taking the maximum points and Newgarden finishing 21st. Only one of those events is likely. Will Power, 68 points in arrears, needs the grand slam and for Newgarden to finish 13th. Power has had issues at Sonoma. In 2014 he spun while leading in the hairpin, and in 2015 he collided with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, likely costing Montoya the title.

Defending champion Simon Pagenaud trails Newgarden by 34 points. If   Pagenaud runs the table for 104 points, Newgarden must finish fourth or worse. If Newgarden comes home third, they tie and Newgarden wins with 4 victories to 2 for Pagenaud. Helio Castroneves, like the others, needs to collect the most available points. If he does that,  a second place finish by Newgarden, even if he leads a lap, Castroneves wins the title.

For Newgarden and Dixon, the job is much easier. Whoever finishes ahead of the other is the series champion.  This is one of Dixon’s best tracks. He and Power have won the race three times, with Dixon winning most recently in 2015. The Chevy package will likely have an advantage this weekend, but Dixon just needs to finish ahead of one of them and as far up in the order as he can.

Usually this race comes down to who wins the pole. That single point can be crucial. Saturday’s qualifying will actually eliminate a couple of the drivers with a chance. As we saw in Watkins Glen, however, nothing is certain in Indycar racing. Pit errors may play a role in determining the outcome.

Then there are the spoilers. Rossi played that role at Watkins Glen, taking 11 points that Dixon could have had. Graham Rahal has had a great run the last half of the season, accumulating top 5s and top 10s. Will the extra RLL car for Zachary Claman de Melo be a factor in a point stealing sense? A 22 car field means last place pays16 points, while 21st, the size of most grids this year, is worth 18.

Who will it be? I’m still going with Scott Dixon to be the 2107 champion. He knows how to win championships coming from behind.  Simon Pagenaud will win his second consecutive GoPro Grand Prix, but not from the pole.

Notes

Zach Veach apparently has a 3 year deal with Andretti Autosport. An announcement  should be made this weekend.

Tristan Gommendy and Calmels will drive the 77 car for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports at next year’s 500. Gommendy rove for KV in CART in 2007.

It looks like Tony Kanaan will drive for A J Foyt next year in the 14. No word on who will be in the 4. I hope it’s still Conor Daly, but I’m not optimistic.

Late news has Brendon Hartley joining Chip Ganassi racing to replace Tony Kanaan. Look for a 2 car effort from Ganassi next year.

My season review and Sonoma post race will be out on September 29. I’m staying in California for a few days after the race. I will try to post Sunday night but it will be brief.

 

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