IndyCar: Penske looks for fifth straight Sonoma win this weekend

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So at Mid-Ohio, we noted that Chip Ganassi Racing had a shot at a six-pack of consecutive victories at that track – and come Sunday afternoon, courtesy of a strategic and fuel-saving gem from last to first by Scott Dixon, they’d achieved it.

Heading into the next permanent road course on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, it’s Team Penske that has a win streak on the line.

Dating to 2010, Penske has won the last four races at Sonoma Raceway, with Will Power winning in 2010, 2011 and last year. Ryan Briscoe won in 2012 in a result that in hindsight, may have cost Power that year’s championship.

Alas, a Penske win in 2014 would all but certainly secure the IndyCar championship for either Power or Helio Castroneves. Power leads his teammate by 39 points after his Milwaukee domination, and he heads to Sonoma seeking to extend a streak of four consecutive top-two finishes.

For good measure, Power also won three straight poles in Sonoma from 2010 through 2012, and faded to “only” third last year on the grid.

Castroneves has a Sonoma win on his record in 2008, but has generally struggled of late this season

The third member of the team who could add to this streak is Juan Pablo Montoya, who took one of his two career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins at Sonoma in 2007. Montoya may have raced here for the last seven years, but in a completely different car and course configuration. Either way, you’d still figure him to be a factor this weekend.

Not only is the Penske streak intact, but either Penske or Ganassi has won every Sonoma race since 2007 – the last outside of those two was Marco Andretti in 2006, for his first career win.

And as we noted last year, it’s not just wins – it’s top fives and Firestone Fast Sixs that the Penske and Ganassi squads have nearly locked out these last several years.

Last year was a rare year of diversity, with five different teams finishing in the top five. Power won from Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing) and Dario Franchitti (Ganassi), with Andretti and Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports) rounding out the top five. Hard as it is to believe, that podium was Wilson’s second most recent and Franchitti’s final career podium in an IndyCar.

The diversity of IndyCar in 2014 has been consistent; there have been 10 different race winners and 20 different podium finishers in the first 16 races. But adding to those numbers at Sonoma, based on history, will be hard to accomplish.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.