Sonoma flashback: Marco Andretti scores first IndyCar win in 2006

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As the 2006 IRL IndyCar Series season entered its final stages, a tight championship battle was ensuing between Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon.

But in the penultimate race of the year at Sonoma Raceway, their ongoing pursuit of the IRL title was overshadowed as third-generation driver Marco Andretti notched his first career IndyCar win on the technical Northern California road course.

It took some risk and luck for the son of Michael and grandson of Mario to break through and become the youngest driver ever to win a major American open-wheel event.

On Lap 44, Andretti pitted his No. 26 Andretti Green Racing Honda and then chose to stay on track when a caution came out at Lap 51. That forced the then-19-year-old driver to save fuel later on in the closing laps of the race.

A win for Andretti was very much in doubt, but with less than 10 laps left and AGR teammate Dario Franchitti closing in on him, another AGR driver, Bryan Herta, spun out at Turn 7 to trigger a caution.

That helped ease Andretti’s fuel issues, and he was able to hold off Franchitti in the end to secure his inaugural victory.

“I knew that Dario [Franchitti] is normally the king of saving fuel,” Andretti said. “After he got by Tony [Kanaan], I knew it definitely wasn’t over, and he would push me hard during the final laps.

“I had to run some pretty fast laps at the end, but we just needed to stay consistent, save the tires and fuel, and it all worked out.”

Meanwhile, some of his fellow competitors wondered if Herta had done his team a solid with his late spin.

“There’s no doubt he spun on purpose,” Wheldon said after the race according to ESPN’s John Oreovicz. “Bryan definitely took one for the team today and that’s not how any race should be decided.”

For his part, Herta denied the accusations, maintaining that he simply got on the throttle too early going into Turn 7 before looping his No. 7 Honda around.

While that debate raged, Castroneves’ fifth-place finish enabled him to take a one-point lead over Hornish going into the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway.

In the Windy City, however, it was Hornish who drove away with his third IRL crown. Wheldon won that race, with teammate Dixon in second, Hornish in third, and Castroneves in fourth.

But the result brought Hornish and Wheldon into a tie atop the standings, and Hornish claimed the title via tiebreaker – his four race wins trumping Wheldon’s two.

As for Andretti, he’d have to wait until 2011 before he added his second IndyCar race win at Iowa Speedway.

The IndyCars return to Sonoma Raceway this Sunday for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra for your online and mobile devices.

Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s INDYCAR race was postponed until Monday

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Here’s what several drenched drivers had to say after Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was postponed until Monday morning (11:30 a.m. ET, LIVE on NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2018 pole winner): “It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us. We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much. There was too much puddling and pooling of water on every straightaway. Then the rivers started flowing, high-speed compressions in Turns 1 and 2, fast corner, 12 and 13, fast corner where the river starts to form. Just tough. I mean, look, we love racing in the rain. It’s got nothing to do with not wanting to run in the rain, not being able to do that. It’s that this type of track with this water level was too much to race today. We’ve run here in the rain before, but it intensified to the point where you’re starting to get in a situation where it’s going to take it out of the drivers’ hands. What happened with Will (Power), I don’t think is a driver error. I don’t know how anyone is going to drive hydroplaning on the front straightaway. I think you would have had that for the rest of the track, too. A tough situation. Thanks for the fans that came out and supported us. Hopefully we’ll get some people back tomorrow and we’ll get the show in and put on a great event.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet):
“Tough day so far. We had some problems with our radio and fuel alarm, but otherwise the car was alright. It was just too dangerous out there, we couldn’t see anything, so I think they made the right call. Hopefully we’ll have a good race tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s just a real shame for everyone on the Verizon Chevy team. The car was good and we were doing our best out there, but it was really hard to see anything in front of me. The conditions were just so bad. As soon as I got to the frontstraight, the car just came around, and I tried to keep it off the wall, but it was hydroplaning and there was nothing I could do. I feel bad for the team and for the fans in this weather. Just too bad. Hopefully our luck can turn around when we get to Indianapolis.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Very difficult day for us. In the race we were 13th at the time and we had some electrical issues, so that caused us to pit and we lost a lap. Not the ideal situation, but we don’t give up. There’s still a race tomorrow and we’re going to go for the most points. Anything can happen.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue today, no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in today, but that’s life. We will go racing tomorrow.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I think definitely the right decision was made to red flag the race. It’s a very difficult position for everyone to be in. It’s never the result that you want, but safety is obviously a priority. I think everyone did a good job considering the conditions of looking out for each other. Not being able to see is not doing anybody any good. It is hard for everyone, but glad that we’re all in one piece and try again later.

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “As you could see on TV, if you couldn’t see the car, it was probably three times worse in the cockpit on the main straight or any straight. You had to completely trust the guys that they were accelerating. Never the less, I made good progress on the short stint and I made up a few positions.  The car was working well, but also was aquaplaning a lot, too, so I have to respect INDYCAR’s decision for everyone’s safety. Now we really need to concentrate on having a good car for tomorrow. I’m sorry for the fans that sat in rain all day, but thank them for their support.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “It was a short day. In the beginning the conditions were not that good, but afterwards the conditions started to improve. The race was stopped, then restarted, and I think the conditions were not too bad at that point. Unfortunately, it was red flagged again and then cancelled for the day. It would have been nice to get halfway, but we will come back and try again tomorrow.”