Can Top 5 Starters Yield Another Verizon IndyCar Series Winner at Sonoma?

This is it. The last week of the IndyCar season is upon us. These last seven days will answer the question of who will be your 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion. These last seven days will also give us two amazing races that are sure to fire up cars and tempers. They are sure to produce edge-of-your-seat racing entertainment and nail-biting maneuvers. Some of those maneuvers will be demonstrated later today as the field of 22 leaves it all out on the track from green to checkered. More than likely, the focus will remain on the Top 5 starters. It is from within this very finely distinct grouping of drivers (different combination every year of course), that we have found the winner to all past 9 IndyCar races here at Sonoma Raceway. In this, it’s 10th year, I think it’s only fair to respect that tradition by taking a look at the Top 5 starters for today’s Go Pro Grand Prix and check out their odds of winning.

20140511_163553Starting from P5 today is Chip Ganassi Racing Teams driver, Ryan Briscoe in the NTT Data-sponsored #8 Chevrolet. Briscoe comes into this weekend with a very solid run in Milwaukee last weekend where he started P4 and finished a respectable P6. Briscoe is still looking for his first podium this season having just missed it with a season-best 4th place finish at Pocono last month. His P5 start today is his 5th Top 5 start this year, with the others coming at Belle Isle (P5 for both races), Iowa (P4) and the aforementioned P4 start last weekend at IndyFest. Briscoe’s practice sessions yesterday were nothing to scoff at – having the fastest lap for some time in the AM session & finishing second fastest overall in the afternoon. There’s no doubt that he has the talent, the crew, and the car – now it’s a matter of whether he and his team can make all the pieces fit together harmoniously in order to achieve victory this afternoon in Wine Country.

The Mayor of Hinchtown starts from P4 today – his seventh Top 5 start this season. James Hinchcliffe, driving for Andretti Autosport in the #27 UFD-sponsored Honda has had an interesting weekend so far including 5 spins in practice that somehow turned into a spot in the Firestone Fast 6 for the Canadian. I think he sums it up best though:

“From where we were and the amount of times I ended up backwards today, I’m really happy to have the United Fiber & Data car starting on the second row tomorrow.”

This is Hinchcliffe’s best start since the doubleheader weekend in Detroit where he started from the “always a bridesmaid…” spot on the front row for both races. He has only stood on the podium once this year – when he finished P3 at Mid-Ohio, earlier this month. Hinchcliffe had 3 wins last season and is looking to prove he was not a one-season-wonder. This is particularly important considering he has not yet signed on with a team for the 2015 season. Will he be able to find his way to the podium today – proving that he does indeed have the ability to stay consistent with results?

IMAG1343Speaking of consistency, let’s look at the current Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, Scott Dixon. The driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams #9 Target-sponsored Chevy, will start today’s Go Pro Grand Prix from the inside of Row 2. Dixon is still mathematically capable of producing back-to-back Championship seasons for his camp and don’t think for a second that this knowledge escapes him. He is as focused as ever and ready to keep his own tradition alive at this rolling Northern California road course. Dixon is the only driver on the starting grid to not only compete in, but to complete every lap of every IndyCar race ever hosted at Sonoma Raceway. Read that again. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Yeah. Every lap of every IndyCar race at Sonoma. I know, right? That’s something to brag about, but Dixon is too humble to toot his own horn – so we can do it for him! Here’s to the tradition staying alive and well today. And I’ll tell you what – if yesterday’s practices were any indication of how he will run with the pack today (P2 in the morning & P4 in the afternoon), we’re in for quite a show in Sonoma!

Moving from an already-race-legend to a legend-in-the-making, we turn our attention to Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing driver, Josef Newgarden. Newgarden is finishing up his 3rd full season with the Verizon IndyCar Series and the change we’ve seen in him since his days in Indy Lights is remarkable. Even Josef recognizes that transition in his driving style:

“Starting up front is a big deal. I think it’s a very difficult track to understand as a driver… It’s so cool to see our progress because coming from 2012 nearly starting last, (and) now we’re in 2014 and we’re nearly starting first. It’s a really cool deal for me so I’m excited for tomorrow.”

I touched on his professional maturity and talent in my article last weekend and he continued to demonstrate those very characteristics after another heart-breaking loss – this time at the Milwaukee Mile. He seems to be a victim of bad-timing more than anything else. His qualifying efforts are certainly not the cause of concern – this P2 start ties his career-best starting grid positions at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course & earlier in the summer at Texas Motor Speedway. In fact, he’s now only one P2 qualification away from having to share that “bridesmaids” title with Hinch… honestly though, if any two drivers were going to battle for that title… who better than the two comedians of the paddock?

Newgarden’s friendly demeanor, light-hearted persona and approachable nature in said paddock (and on camera) is a big reason why he has grown such a loyal fan base. Those fans are getting louder every weekend in their support for this young American IndyCar driver – they want to see a victory from him and I guarantee you, he wants nothing more than to give it to them! Here’s hoping.

IMAG1268The final driver to profile in this year’s exclusive “Top 5 Sonoma Starters” club, is none other than the current points leader and Championship contender, Will Power. Power is one in the Verizon IndyCar Series powerhouse trifecta that IS Team Penske 2014. Power is taking home yet another Verizon P1 Award trophy this weekend – his 4th from Sonoma (all achieved in the past 5 seasons), his 4th this season (other P1 starts for Power were at Barber Motorsports Park, Texas Motor Speedway and the Milwaukee Mile), and his 36th career pole with the series. He holds onto 6th place on the All-Time Career Pole Winners list. His current teammate and fellow Championship contender, Helio Castroneves, as well as retired drivers Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, AJ Foyt and of course Mario Andretti are the only IndyCar drivers in history to achieve more pole position starts than Power. That’s some pretty remarkable company.

As if those accolades weren’t enough, Power also broke the track record that he himself, set back in 2012. The new record was a blistering 1:17.2393 lap, running at an average of 111.161 mph! While these numbers all play a big role in his weekend and his career achievements, we can’t forget lucky number 5 this weekend. This number has been following Power around, as a matter of fact. He ran 5th fastest in both practice sessions yesterday and also landed P2 during the 2nd round of qualifying which advanced him into the Firestone Fast 6. Even though he is leading the field to green later this afternoon, Power is well-aware of the nature of competition this season and the possibility of anything and everything potentially occurring:

“…We’ve put ourselves in a great position to win the race, but you know how these races go. You’ve got to get everything right on race day and we’re going to try and do that.”

Power doesn’t strike me as one to be superstitious, but I guess you never really know. I wonder if any of the top-starters counted 5 sheep before falling asleep last night or if they set their alarm clocks for 5:55am this morning? 5 does seem to be the magic number at Sonoma. Athletes have all kinds of routines and methods that they rely on… and while sports superstitions are fun, luck has little to do with what these guys go out and do every weekend during the season. Still, we can’t help but wonder if they can continue the streak or if we will have a black horse charging from the back of the pack to grab the victory and surprise everyone? Knowing this series and the level of competition… nothing would surprise me.

I am covering the Verizon IndyCar Series event at Sonoma Raceway from a distance this weekend, so be sure to like my public page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and join in the conversation by using the weekend’s official hashtags: #IndyCar & #GoProGrandPrix. Tune in to see the Verizon IndyCar Series Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma on NBC Sports at 4pm EDT today. If you’re not near a television, make sure to download the free IndyCar 14 app on your Verizon Wireless-powered smartphone or tablet – you can listen to commentary from IndyCar Radio announcers Paul Page & Pippa Mann as well as watch the race unfold live from one of the driver’s perspectives with the in-car camera views. Don’t forget that the free NBC Sports Live Extra app will also allow you watch the broadcast in real-time.

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