There’s not much more to dig into this weekend. We’ve discussed all the drivers with a chance of winning it all after these last 202 miles are completed in the early evening, we’ve talked about the situations and circumstances that would need to happen for each of them in order for things to go their way. And nothing surprising has happened in the test, during practices, or in the rounds of qualifying to really argue any of those points. If anything, things are about as predictable as they’ve ever been in the Verizon IndyCar Series over the past 6-7 seasons.
I personally am looking forward to the universal aerokits next season because I think they’re gonna help mix up the field a bit more and get back to the unpredictability of IndyCar that I love so much. We’ve had 10 winners in 16 rounds of competition with 6 teams represented, which is nothing to scoff at, but this second half of the season has been dominated by Team Penske with poles and wins and in championship talk. I would have preferred as much diversity in the second half of the year as the first.
Speaking of Team Penske, they captured their 256th IndyCar pole position yesterday. This achievement extends their lead as the team with the most poles at this circuit, to seven. This most recent pole was claimed by points leader Josef Newgarden, earning that first bonus point of the weekend in his journey towards his first championship. The Tennessee-native now leads Scott Dixon by 4 points, and his three Penske teammates, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power by 23, 35, and 69 points, respectively.
Newgarden not only won his 2nd career Verizon P1 Award, but he did it in stunning fashion, setting the track record with a 1 minute, 15.5205 second lap around the 2.385-mile, 12-turn road course in wine country. He broke the quick lap set by his fellow contender and current champion, Simon Pagenaud, of 1 minute, 16.2530 seconds, which was set in 2016.
Next to Newgarden in Row 1 will be Will Power. Power has won at Sonoma three times (2010, 2011, 2013) and while he is still mathematically in contention for the title, he would need all of his teammates plus Dixon to have a miserable race day, and as we’ve discussed repeatedly this weekend, that’s an unlikely scenario to occur.
Pagenaud will pilot the No. 1 DXC Technology Chevy from the inside of Row 2, behind Newgarden. Helio Castroneves completes the second row, as he attempts to win his first championship in his 20-year IndyCar career. His results today will determine where we see him racing for Team Penske next year.
The third row is occupied by two Honda-powered cars – the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winning No.26 of Andretti Autosport, wheeled by Takuma Sato on the inside, and the No. 9 NTT Data Ganassi ride of the incomparable Scott Dixon on the outside. Dixon is the last of the championship contenders in the field and while he runs second in points, P6 is not where he wanted to start at Sonoma Raceway. But polesitter Josef Newgarden explained how while he’s satisfied with pole, Dixon starting P6 certainly doesn’t allow him breathe any easier,
“I mean, it helps. It helps for the start of the race, I think. But how many IndyCar races have you seen where being on the pole wasn’t the right thing for the race with the way yellows fall or whatever it is?
I hope it’s straightforward tomorrow. That would make our job a lot easier. We just have to focus on making a fast racecar that lasts. But you never know. I hope I’m not being poetic with talking about him (Dixon) starting sixth and that being the best thing.
You just never know in an IndyCar race. It could fall his way in a heartbeat. I don’t think we take any comfort in it, but we’ll certainly take it. We’ll take the point and the clean air to start the race and hopefully it falls our way.”
The race day morning warm-up proved that. Though you have to take those session results lightly. It’s an opportunity for the teams to make any last minute checks, test out their race pace, and get some pit stop practices in. The times are not always foretelling of what we’ll see in the race but the numbers today are ones that Graham Rahal is hoping to replicate in the contest, as he ran the quickest lap with a 1:16.9608.
The RLL driver of the No. 15 United Rentals/Soldier Strong Honda was fighting for a championship run this season but became mathematically ineligible after we raced at Watkins Glen two weeks ago. Rahal finished with a P5 but more than 104 points off the leader (106 to be exact) and consequently fell out of contention.
The Ohio-born Rahal is one of the most vocal and determined drivers in the paddock and you can bet he will be leaving it all out on the track today to give as strong a performance as possible. I actually think you can expect to see that from a lot of these drivers – more than half the field actually. We have 12 drivers thirsty for an initial victory in 2017, and Sonoma County is the perfect setting for quenching that need.