David Turner writes from the USA previewing the IndyCar Series finale at Sonoma……
This Sunday in the U.S. will see yet another classic Indy Car Series year come to an end and yet again another championship that goes to the wire and once again it makes a very strong statement about the quality of this series and the drivers that compete in it. For the winner the title and the Astor Cup. Sonoma plays host to the Grand Final for the third year in a row and the 2.385 mile permanent road course with up and down hill climbs will be a great challenge to all. 85 laps will make up the race distance, with a total of 150 seconds of useable push to pass activation for the drivers. Seven sets of Firestone primary tires and four sets of the alternate compound. Teams must use one set of each during the race. That’s kind of almost the easy bit.
Point’s leader is Josef Newgarden going into this the final round of the series this weekend at the Sonoma racetrack just across the bay from the city of San Francisco. He is the new boy on the block in terms of been in this type of position at this time of the year and will that pressure come into play. At the last round leaving the pit at Watkins Glen certainly saw signs of increased pressure as he battled with team mate Will Power out of the pit resulting in an error from Newgarden and hitting the pit lane exit wall. A margin of just 3 points over the 4 time champ Kiwi Scott Dixon who lies in a very strong second after a very dramatic season, who in turn is only 19 points ahead of Helio Castroneves in third he trails the leader by 22.
Pausing here for just a second and looking at the top 3. Newgarden an awesome year with four wins in his first full series with Team Penske strong performances but never had the pressure a championship weekend brings. Dixon been there before, won the championship four times and his stats are simply mind blowing. 286 Indy Car starts won the series four times 41 wins overall, 26 poles, 96 top 3 finishes and 140 top 5’s and across his Indy Car life he has lead 5031 laps of racing simply outstanding oh yes and the 2008 Indy 500 title as well. Castroneves on the other hand 3 Indy 500 wins but never claimed a championship so will history repeat itself one has to wonder and this very well maybe his last full time Indy Car season so it very much is a now or never for the very likeable Brazilian.
Moving outside of the top 3 and there are four others that can in theory win the crown and with the final event a double points race there is 100 points on the table for the win plus bonus points for laps lead and poles. In a small side note if Newgarden and Dixon were to tie Dixon would win based on more bonus points rather than race wins. Back to the other contenders then. Current camp Simon Pagenaud is still in the game that’s for sure and while he sits fourth he is only 34 points away from the top of the table, he was also the race winner in 2016 and set a new qualifying record then as well so he is very much suited to this track.
Fifth is the last of the four Penske drivers Will Power at 68 points behind the leader and its still possible that’s for sure. One can of course remember Power coming together with Montoya a few years back (2015) costing JPM the title and gifting it to Dixon on a tiebreaker and count back so team boss Roger Penske won’t be wanting that same out come. Then to sixth place and still in with a chance is Alexander Rossi for Andretti Autosport some 84 points behind the leader but the most recent race winner and on a bit of a roll after resigning with the team for next season and rounding out the points chances is Graham Rahal 94 points behind the leader and really out of the chase as it requires too many other things to happen.
So four Penske drivers all in with a chance surround Dixon all Chevy powered to his lone Honda powered entry before the next Honda powered car of Rossi and with little teammate support around him. This of course is both good or bad however time will tell but if there was ever a need for Kennan (9th), Kimball (17th) and Chilton (12th) to get up front now is the time to steal points and protect the team leader while the bunch of Penske drivers race for a tile or trip each other up.
Honda v Chevy and its really anyone’s game in that department but maybe slightly leaning towards Chevy on the Road Course rather than Hondas aero package more suited to the ovals.
No matter what Sunday will bring a championship title and a crown to one of these drivers, if it happens to be Dixon he becomes a five-time winner.
In closing the rumour mill of who is where in 2018 well that keeps getting hotter all the time. Penske down to three full time cars its pretty much out there now and it should and will see the departure of Helio while at Ganassi expect Dixon to be the only one of the current crop that stays while the others depart to shores unknown (apart from TK whom looks set to join AJ Foyt Racing, which is something he has always wanted to do and drive for AJ at Indy) and there is even talk of the team down sizing for 2018 to a two car team and the very very high chance it will be an all Kiwi team with Brendon Hartley set to join and drive the number 10 car heck roll on 2018 already and many hands to be played yet as well.