Sonoma Preview

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Since I already revealed that I believe Scott Dixon will win the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship on Wednesday; let’s take a look at this weekend’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

It’s no secret that I don’t care for Sonoma Raceway, which has been previously known as Infineon Raceway and Sears Point. Apparently, you must see it in person in order to appreciate it. I’ve never been there and I definitely don’t appreciate it. Those that have been there talk in glowing terms of how beautiful the scenery is. Most of the people I know that have been, I sincerely value their opinion – so I’ll take their word for it. But from my couch watching it on television, I don’t see it.

As magnificent as the surrounding scenery is, from a viewer’s perspective it looks like a glorified dust bowl. Every time a driver puts a wheel off-track, plumes of dust fill the air and all visibility is suddenly obscured. It actually makes me thirsty to watch a race at Sonoma because it is so dry there.

IndyCar has raced at Sonoma since the 2005 season, although USAC ran one race there in 1970, which was won by Dan Gurney. 2005 was when IndyCar first started running non-ovals. It was the second of three non-ovals run that season, with St. Petersburg and Watkins Glen being the others. Tony Kanaan won that first race for Andretti-Green Racing. In fact, AGR won the next year as well when Marco Andretti captured the first of his two career victories in a somewhat curious fashion.

Contrary to popular belief, there have been some memorable moments take place at Sonoma. In 2007, Dario Franchitti and teammate Marco Andretti tangled late in the race. Michael Andretti perceived the incident as Dario preventing his son from winning, regardless of the fact that Dario was pursuing his first IndyCar championship. An internal feud developed and Franchitti ultimately left IndyCar for Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team for 2008. There is debate over whether or not the dustup at Sonoma had any effect on Dario’s decision, but things sure seemed tense between all parties afterwards.

Scott Dixon and Will Power had their own run-ins at Sonoma – both literally and figuratively; most specifically in the pits a few years ago. Then there was the race two years ago when Juan Montoya was running for the championship after leading the points for the entire season. He and teammate Will Power tangled and Scott Dixon won the race and the championship.

As much as I don’t care to watch this race on television, I really don’t like the fact that this race decides the championship. I think it places too much importance on qualifying and I don’t like qualifying deciding a championship. One thing is for certain, every lap in qualifying and the race will be important – as well as every pit stop.

But to be fair to Sonoma, one good thing about crowning the champion at that venue is that it is a place that sponsors want to go to. Never underestimate the importance of keeping sponsors and potential sponsors happy. They are the life’s blood of this sport. Apparently given the surrounding area and the proximity to San Francisco, Sonoma is a perfect place for entertaining sponsors. If the sponsors are happy with crowning a champion at Sonoma, then I’m happy with it. And that negates all of the belly-aching I was doing moments ago.

There has been one bit of news this week that may have a slight effect on the race itself. On Wednesday, Ed Carpenter Racing announced that Spencer Pigot would be driving the No.21 car fulltime next season. Reading between the lines, that means that JR Hildebrand will not be returning to ECR. How will that affect this race? Well, Hildebrand is from nearby Sausalito, California and considers Sonoma his hometown track. He could either be upset and not perform as well as normal, or he could be angry and eager to show ECR that he has made a mistake. If he’s smart, he’ll be looking at this race as an audition for some other team for next season and beyond. Whatever his mindset is, chances are that he won’t be approaching this race as he normally would. Considering that Hildebrand is currently fifteenth in points, that’s probably a good thing.

Several other drivers are driving this weekend with an unconfirmed future. Some drivers like James Hinchcliffe are most likely returning to their current teams. Others like Tony Kanaan and Max Chilton are likely driving their last race with their current teams. Strong rumors have Kanaan heading to Foyt next season. Max Chilton? Stay tuned.

Sunday’s race has a green-flag time of 3:30 local time on NBCSN. That means that for you folks on the east coast, the race won’t start until 6:30. For us here in Nashville, it’ll be a 5:30 start. That means I’ll be assured of being able to see all of the Titans game before the race. If they don’t play better than last week, that may not be such a good thing.

Although I’ve predicted Scott Dixon to be the ultimate winner of the championship, that doesn’t mean he’ll win the race. With so many drivers still alive for the championship, I’m not sure that drivers will be going all out – but they should. It’s a curious stat that of all the drivers ranked in the Top-Five in points, the only one that has never won at Sonoma is the current points leader, Josef Newgarden. My prediction is that the winner of this race will come from the group that is not racing for the championship. My best guess to wrap up this season on a positive note by winning the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma? Graham Rahal. We’ll see.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Sonoma Preview”

  1. I agree about having the final race at Sonoma. I think in order for this race to be a double points race it needs to be something special. Indycar races with IMSA throughout the season. So why not for the final race at Sonoma have the race run like an endurance race. 2hrs and 40minutes long. It would then be the toughest and longest road course race of the year. Which then makes the double points understandable. If not feasible then have a 500 mile finale race as in other previous seasons. Either way I’m excited for the final race, really looking forward to watch all weekend and see how it ends up.

  2. Well not how I thought it would happen but I predicted a one and done for JR. I figured it would be a “mutual decision to part ways” by July. I am not a big Pigot fan either so this is your shot buddy, I wish you will but if you run bad, I hope they part with you next season also. Veach running full-time with AA I read as well. I would say Daly might be out at Foyt based on cash, for Kanaan.

    Here is an interesting on though, Kasey Kahne said he was toying with an Indycar contract for 2018. I would love to see him at Ganassi! Think about that, some crossover appeal. Also the fact that Ganassi has room at the inn to run him in some NASCAR races next year, it makes sense to me!

  3. George- you are too used to the eastern United States and Midwest. California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah parts of Colorado are deserts. It’s not the tracks fault in that respect They are not all going to be green and lush like Road America. Mid- Ohio and Barber. I think that is part of what makes the series diverse. I think you should go to Sonoma and you might have a different opinion. I do agree with you on the lack of passing opportunities and I definitely do not like that it is double points. Like many road courses designed in the 60’s, (Mid-Ohio) they are too narrow, too short and need to be updated for a modern race car.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    There is usually more of a fight in the middle of the field than at the front at Sonoma, so a championship non-contender like Rahal, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, etc. seizing control of this race could make things interesting with the contenders scrapping for small points increments in mid-pack positions. Such a race would benefit Newgarden the most, and really hurt Helio, Pagenaud, and Power.

  5. Brian McKay Says:

    Thanks for blogging.

  6. I agree with George in not having a particular liking for Sonoma, the racetrack. However, it’s the best suitable permanent racing venue in California that IndyCar can get at this time. Laguna Seca would need renovation work first and Fontana got kind of driven out of the series by bad timing on purpose. Enough has been said about that over the years.

    So let’s focus on the championship now. Double points in the final round is an unnecessary gimmick which needs to go. Scott Dixon is now facing the whole Team Penske armada of 4 cars. My guess is it will be one of the Penske drivers winning the championship. Yet, it is going to be interesting because in this race, no Penske driver will have a team mate to help them.

    When the season finale got to Sonoma, it was deemed temporary. Yet, even this year, it’s still being held there. Another event needs to be added onto the end of the calendar to make Sonoma the penultimate round for next year.
    What’s the weather like in Milwaukee in September?

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