Jeff Gordon spent the first few years of his life just a stone’s throw away from Sonoma Raceway, in nearby Vallejo, California.
It was at that same Sonoma track that Gordon began to get an appreciation for what would eventually become his life’s work, that of a race car driver.
And even though he moved to Indiana for his teens and to pursue those racing dreams, Gordon has never forgotten how much of a factor Sonoma played in his development.
It’s a place he’s always enjoyed returning to and, more often than not, he ends up with a good showing – just like Sunday’s runner-up finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Gordon, who leads all active Cup drivers with five wins at the twisting and turning road course in California’s wine country, almost made it six triumphs Sunday, but came up just a little bit short to eventual winner Carl Edwards.
Had it not been an uncharacteristic late error by Gordon in the race, he very well may have made it a half-dozen victories, he explained to TNT in a post-race interview.
“With five or six laps to go, I was making some ground up on Carl,” Gordon said on TNT. “I was really good in the fast sections and he was pretty good in the slow sections, so I just happened to hit everything so perfect.
“I just overdrove it going into (turn) four one time and went real wide off and that gave him enough of a gap that I had to close it back in.”
Gordon did an excellent job of closing that gap one last time and appeared he would catch Edwards on the final turn – turn 11 – on the final lap.
Unfortunately for Gordon, Edwards threw the block and rather than run the risk of wrecking out both drivers, Gordon backed off and settled for a still excellent runner-up finish.
“I just couldn’t put enough pressure on him,” Gordon said of Edwards. “I saw him struggling with the grip level, but he drove a clean race, did everything he needed to do.
“That last lap, I gave it my best effort and closed up on him. I just drove into 11 as hard as I could, we weren’t good into 11 anyway, he didn’t overdrive it. I was hoping he might slide it and I could get a run underneath him, but overall a great weekend. We had a great car in the race.”
Thanks to his 14th career top-5 at Sonoma (in 22 starts), Gordon remains atop the Sprint Cup standings.
Ironically, Gordon could actually be at 10 wins at Sonoma: he’s finished second now in three of the last four Sprint Cup races there, in addition to two other second-place runs there earlier in his career.
But the veteran driver will take another great run and move forward.
“I love racing here, I love being competitive, leading the points and having a shot at winning races,” Gordon said. “We’re having fun.”
Following a small “summer break” in which they took two weeks off, the Verizon IndyCar Series begins its stretch run to the championship this weekend, with four races spanning a five week period, including three in a row, beginning at this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Since returning to the IndyCar schedule in 2013, Pocono has seen four different pole sitters and winners. In 2013, Marco Andretti sat on the pole while Scott Dixon took the win. In 2014, Juan Pablo Montoya scored both the pole and the victory. In 2015, it was Helio Castroneves leading the field to the green flag, with Ryan Hunter-Reay ending up in Victory Lane. And last year, Mikhail Aleshin took his first career IndyCar pole, while Will Power captured the race win.
In short, no one driver or team has emerged as the predominant force at the three-turn 2.5-mile oval, meaning its recent history since returning to the schedule has been equally as unpredictable as the 2017 season.
Previous speedway races have indicated that Honda should have an advantage, but Honda and Chevrolet have actually split the wins at the big ovals this year. Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato won for Honda at the Indianapolis 500, while Team Penske’s Will Power won for Chevrolet at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. And the rubber match on the big ovals is expected to be somewhat of a wildcard as IndyCar begins its stretch run to the championship.
2017 ABC Supply 500 – Talking Points
500-mile endurance test
The two other big ovals were more about survival than outright pace. Three Honda engines failed during the 101st Indianapolis 500, capping a month of worry that saw no fewer than ten engine failures during the month of May.
And both the Indy 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 were mired by crashes. The two races combined for ten cautions due to accidents, highlight by Scott Dixon’s airborne incident at Indianapolis and a pileup at Texas that collected eight cars.
Outside of the 2015 race, which saw 12 cautions, Pocono has a tendency for long stretches of green-flag running with the other three races combining for only seven cautions between them (the 2016 race saw four cautions, the 2014 race saw one, and the 2013 race saw two). Still, while Sunday’s race is unlikely to be a crashfest, it will be a big test of engine reliability.
Points leader Josef Newgarden discussed such a topic in a media teleconference, revealing that he believes Chevrolet has the upper hand in this area. “I think the advantage to being with team Chevy is you feel comfortable in the reliability that we’ve had throughout many years at IndyCar, specifically the last couple years. I think we feel very comfortable with what Chevrolet brings from a reliability standpoint. We never have issues,” he asserted.
Still, this does not mean he is discounting the Honda, who reportedly found the issue that caused their slew of engine failures early in the year.
“There’s a lot of things that give us confidence, but at the same time, we can’t discount Honda,” Newgarden added. “You can’t turn an eye to them. You have to make sure you’re watching them at all points and respecting what they can bring to the table because they’re a very strong manufacturer and they’ve won races and they’ve won Indy 500s, and they’re very capable of taking it from you if you don’t watch that closely. They’re a challenge for us with Pocono being their biggest strength, but I feel confident with Chevy that we have a chance to win the championship.”
Honda’s big oval dominance?
Speaking of Honda, the assumption is that Honda has a pace advantage over Chevrolet at the big ovals. And while that was true at Indianapolis, Texas was quite different, especially in that race-winner Will Power led 180 laps on his way to victory.
While the aerodynamic package at Texas may have played a factor in that, it nonetheless serves notice that Honda’s advantage on the big ovals is not as big as originally thought.
Last year at Pocono, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Mikhail Aleshin and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay somewhat dominated the race, but it was Power who went to Victory Lane for Team Penske and Chevrolet.
Like Texas, outside circumstances certainly played a role (Hunter-Reay had an odd electronics failure that saw his car lose power late in the race, though he ultimately rebounded to finish third), and the speed of Aleshin and Hunter-Reay that day indicated that Honda had an outright speed advantage.
However, Pocono’s unique layout means that pure speed is not enough; the three different turns require a perfect setup balance that features a lot of compromise. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, the 2013 Pocono victor, discussed this aspect, highlighting that Pocono is a track not to be taken lightly.
“You have to put a lot of hard work into getting everything right on this track. Nothing is a given here,” Dixon said of the challenges of Pocono Raceway. “We’ve slipped to third in the championship with four to go here recently, but are only eight points out. This is the time to really start a string of strong finishes that will hopefully get you across the finish line in front of the other contenders.”
In total, Chevrolet leads Honda 7-6 in the win column in 2017, with Josef Newgarden’s victory at the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio giving the edge to the Chevrolet camp leading into Pocono.
The sixth is the famous one-car effort from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the hands of driver Graham Rahal. Since 2015, this combination has been nipping at the heels of all the big teams, even making a championship run in 2015.
In 2017, they’re poised to do it again. Though 58 points behind championship leader Newgarden, there remains time for Rahal to chip away, though he’ll need to finish ahead of his title rivals in each of the final four races if he is to capture this year’s championship.
But, with the experience of 2015 to build on, it’s a task he and the team are ready for.
“The team absolutely has momentum. I think we are the hottest team other than (Team) Penske right now, if you look at it across the board,” Rahal asserted ahead of this weekend’s race.
The younger Rahal’s confidence is very high leading into the weekend, especially because he feels the team’s package is more than enough to contend for a win.
“We’ve got some big races coming up clearly and Pocono is going to be a big one that should suit the Honda really well. Coming out of Indianapolis setup wise, we should have some good knowledge that we didn’t have going into the month that we found very late in the month. We had very fast race cars and ran up front there, so hopefully we can carry that forward and do the same at Pocono this weekend,” Graham added.
Graham and RLL will look to improve upon their best Pocono finish of 11th, which came last year.
Dale Coyne Racing has been a surprisingly mighty force at the big ovals this year. Can they continue that form?
Ryan Hunter-Reay is on a winless streak that dates back to this race in 2015. Can you bring that drought to an end?
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Mikhail Aleshin have parted ways, with Sebastian Saavedra piloting the No. 7 SPM Honda entry at the next two races. Saavedra finished an impressive 11th with the team at Toronto; can he repeat that performance on a big oval?
Drivers like JR Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, and Alexander Rossi are running out of chances to win in 2017. Will one of them break through at Pocono?
Can Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing spring a third consecutive top-10 in their third start of the year? The young Colombian American and the new team has been one of the year’s pleasant surprises to date.
The final word
From last year’s Pocono winner, Will Power: “”I definitely had a great time off with (son) Beau and my wife, but am ready to get back on track. The No. 12 Verizon Chevy team put together a really awesome car at Mid-Ohio which produced a strong result. Now we’re going back to Pocono where we won last year. Another win there would be huge for us in the point standings, so we’re really going to give it our all. The team worked on the car a lot and we all feel it’s going to be another strong car.”
Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:
At-track schedule (all times local):
Saturday August 19
9:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
1:00 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), airs LIVE on NBCSN
5:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
Sunday August 20
1:10 p.m. – 1:25 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
2:00 p.m.. – NBCSN on air
2:40 p.m. – ABC Supply 500 (200 laps/500 miles), NBCSN (Live)
Here’s last year’s top 10
1. Will Power
2. Mikhail Aleshin
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. Josef Newgarden
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Scott Dixon
7. Carlos Munoz
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
9. Tony Kanaan
10. James Hinchcliffe
Imagine, for a moment, a radio call of this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) which omitted the names of the drivers and teams and instead asked those on the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network to instead only call the race – and perhaps the finish – by car colors.
“There’s the blue and white car, side-by-side with another blue and white car, but a third blue and white car has entered the frame… let’s send it to Jake Query…”
“The blue and white car battle royale rolls through the Tunnel Turn, then into Turn 3, where a blue and white car makes a dive bomb on another blue and white car… Mark Jaynes, bring it home!”
“Get your cameras ready for a blue and white spectacular, photo finish as count ’em, one, two, three, maybe four blue and white cars run side-by-side to the line at Pocono!”
Such a scenario sounds fanciful… and then you look at the spotter guide for this weekend’s race and realize it’s not far fetched. At all.
There are very few gripes I have with the current Verizon IndyCar Series, but one thing that has consistently irked me all year – among others in the paddock – is the preponderance and overkill of blue and white (and red, white and blue) liveries gracing the Chevrolets and Hondas that make up the 21 or 22-car field.
Granted, this is what happens when the partners involved with most teams have blue and white in their corporate colors. And this isn’t a bad thing because teams need all the partners they can get.
However, there’s something to be said for variety in color schemes up and down the grid and when you have a third to half the field, on average, looking identical or close – it makes it very hard to distinguish and stand out, as well as a nightmare for the spotters or the people tasked with calling the race. Mistakes are far from inevitable and it’s not because the person would get it wrong intentionally; it just happens.
Just for Pocono alone, there are five more new or revived blue and white liveries to add to the litany of blue and white liveries this year.
The pair of NTT Data Hondas from Chip Ganassi Racing take on a new predominately white and blue hue for both Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan to look close to identical, after Dixon’s had a blue and white color scheme while Kanaan’s has been predominately blue only this year.
Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti, and Gabby Chaves, meanwhile, see their cars look nearly identical. Expedite Home Loans, an online division of Ruoff Home Mortgage, will be on Sato’s No. 26 Honda which makes it a light blue and white scheme, super close to Andretti’s No. 27 light blue and white United Fiber & Data Honda, which is close to Chaves’ light blue (can we call it teal?) and white No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet, back for the first time since Texas.
Since words are meaningless by this point, we thought it a good idea to instead post a picture of every blue and white car that’s raced in 2017. As you can see, this epidemic has spread throughout the grid and is not limited to just one team.
So, without further adieu, here’s a roundup of all the predominately blue, blue and white, or red, white and blue cars that have seen a green flag this year, before the new ones get added this weekend (All photos: IndyCar).
CHIP GANASSI RACING TEAMS
*We should also note Andretti-Herta Autosport driver Alexander Rossi has had a blue car all season, but with either yellow (NAPA Auto Parts/Curb) or red (ShopAndretti.com) secondary colors alongside the primary blue, the No. 98 Honda doesn’t fall into the all blue or blue and white trap.
The 26-year-old became the first female to win a main event in the series’ history, capturing the AFT Singles win in Knoxville Raceway in 2011. She’s led the points throughout the season in the AFT Singles division.
She provided an update on both her own growth and development and the rise of the series itself on Thursday night’s episode of NBCSN’s NASCAR America.
At the rate he’s been going, Robert Hight is going to keep going higher and higher.
During the week, Hight is the President of John Force Racing (and son-in-law of the legendary drag racer). On weekends, Hight transforms into one of JFR’s three Funny Car drivers.
But he’s been standing out above the rest of the NHRA Funny Car crowd of late – boy, has he ever.
As the NHRA heads to Minnesota for this weekend’s Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, Hight has been hotter than the flames that shoot out of the exhaust pipes on his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro.
He captured two of the last three NHRA national events – also known as the Western Swing – at Denver and Seattle (and reached the quarterfinals at Sonoma).
And during last week’s off-weekend from the NHRA 24-race schedule, Hight kept his hot hand … err, foot … going, winning the Night Under Fire match race at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.
“When you’re on roll like we’ve been on and the car’s running so well, this is what you want,” Hight said in a media release. “Even though last week was a match race, we still got the win, and we ran great.
“You don’t want this to ever end. It’s going to at some point, but we want to roll into Brainerd and get right back in there.”
If Hight’s good fortune continues at Brainerd, the next race on the schedule is the biggest race of the year each season, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Indiana on Labor Day weekend.
In addition to his two wins, Hight has made a dramatic jump upward in the Funny Car point standings, climbing from eighth to third place.
He’s 166 points behind Funny Car points leader and defending series champ Ron Capps, but is just eight points behind second-ranked Matt Hagan.
But wait, there’s more:
* In addition, Hight has qualified No. 1 in three of the last four national events, and has qualified third or better in the last nine consecutive national events.
* He also made major news three weeks ago when one of those No. 1 qualifiers was the fastest speed ever seen in Funny Car annals: 339.87 mph at Sonoma.
Now he’s looking for even more speed this weekend – and maybe even more records to fall.
“If conditions are good, Brainerd can be a fast race track,” said Hight, the 2015 Brainerd winner. “I’m looking forward to going there, having a successful weekend.
“We have a good shot at getting up to second points, and going into Indy No. 2 would be pretty cool. We’re looking for another win.”
Hight also is on the verge of becoming part of another NHRA milestone. If he gets past the first round in Sunday’s final eliminations, it will be his 400th career round victory.
Only five other Funny Car drivers have ever earned 400 or more round wins, led by Hight’s boss and father-in-law, John Force, with 1,278 career round wins.
“That’s big,” Hight said. “You’ve got to get round wins before you get race wins, and that’s how you get race wins. John has 1,278 round wins, so 400 doesn’t seem like very much.
“I don’t know how 400 stacks up to other guys who have raced the similar amount of time, but I’m happy that the round wins are coming more frequently than there were for us. That’s encouraging, and that’s exciting.”
The first two rounds of qualifying at Brainerd on Friday are at 4:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET.
The final two rounds are Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.
Final eliminations begin at Noon ET, with live coverage on Fox Sports 1 from 2-5 p.m. ET.
Want to learn more about Hight? Check it out:
Hight won the 2009 NHRA Funny Car championship. He’s going for his second title this year, being one of six Funny Car drivers that have already qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Hight has competed in 12 races at Brainerd, and has qualified for 11 races and every race since 2010.
Hight has advanced to the finals once at Brainerd, in 2015. He won that race, defeating Tommy Johnson Jr.
Hight is 9-10 all-time in 19 elimination rounds at Brainerd.
Hight’s best qualifying effort at Brainerd has been No. 3, which he has achieved three times – 2007, 2008 and 2010. Brainerd is one of two current tracks in which Hight is still looking for a No. 1 qualifier (Bristol being the other).
Hight has won five of his 11 first-round elimination matchups at Brainerd.
Hight’s 39 victories are the fourth most in Funny Car history, behind John Force (148); Ron Capps (55); and Tony Pedregon (43). He is tied with Del Worsham for 21st on the all-time professional victories list; Worsham has 31 wins in Funny Car and eight in Top Fuel.
Hight is one elimination round victory away from 400. His 399 round wins are 24th all-time in NHRA history. Angelle Sampey currently has 400 round wins.
Hight has been the No. 1 qualifier four times this season, and three times in the last four races. His 53 No. 1s are third most in Funny Car history, and he is tied for 11th with Larry Dixon across all professional categories. Only Force (155) and Cruz Pedregon (61) have more in the category.
In 2017, Hight has two victories, a 26-14 record in elimination rounds, and four No. 1 qualifiers. He holds a season-best 38 elimination-round wins in a season, in 2014. He has surpassed 30 elimination-round wins in a season seven times in 12 previous seasons.
Hight has set the fastest event speed a career-best nine times this season, which exceeds his previous season-best of seven set in his rookie season, 2005. He now has 50 fastest event speeds in his career, the 50th coming last month at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, where he set the NHRA record at 339.87 mph.
Hight has four final rounds this season and 61 in his career.
Hight has competed in 158 consecutive races, tied for 17th all-time with Doug Kalitta, dating back to the second race at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., in 2010.
Hight’s most recent NHRA victory – 2017 Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash.
Hight’s most recent No. 1 qualifying effort – 2017 Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash.
Hight’s best time/speed at Brainerd – 3.885 seconds (2016 E1); 330.31 mph (2016 Q1)
Hight’s best time/speed of career – 3.807 seconds (2017 Sonoma Q2; third quickest elapsed time in history); 339.87 mph (2017 Sonoma Q2; fastest speed in history)