Getty Images

What to Watch For: IndyCar at Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Leave a comment

SONOMA, Calif. – We haven’t done one of these this year for the Verizon IndyCar Series, but it’s fitting to do when a championship is on the line.

At today’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the question is whether it will be Team Penske and Chevrolet that prevails with one of its four drivers – Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves or Will Power – or whether Scott Dixon will beat them all for Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda.

Today’s 85-lap race at Sonoma Raceway may well witness a number of other story lines develop.

PREVIEW
QUALIFYING REPORT

Here’s some of the additional items to watch for today:

TIRE DEGRADATION

Key to watch is how soon drivers will get off the Firestone red alternate tires, provided most if not all of the 22 drivers in the field start on them.

Here’s Firestone’s explanation of the tires this weekend: “Based on the feedback from drivers, we decided to bring more durable compounds,” said Cara Adams, Chief Engineer, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. “The 2017 Sonoma primary and alternate tires use the same race-proven specifications as the 2017 Barber tires. This compound is more durable than the 2016 Sonoma primary compound. The 2017 Sonoma alternate tire is similar to the 2016 Sonoma primary.”

And here’s some of the driver feedback about tires this weekend, and how the track surface changes on the low-grip surface depending on what rubber goes down just before:

Josef Newgarden: “I think what happened there is the track gripped up from the Pirelli World Challenge race (GT race; Sunday’s race has GTS before). I was surprised. It was a little slippery for my first lap because we went out first. After you got that off the track, it was pretty gripped up. I’m sure these guys would say the same thing. But it was pretty impressive how much grip was on the track.”

Scott Dixon: “I don’t think you really want to run too long. The degradation is high in the first couple laps on new tires, pretty strong, too.”

Sebastien Bourdais: “From one run to the other, you can lose about four-tenths on pure tire deg, or the conditions have changed that much that you don’t know if it’s in the change or in the conditions.”

TEMPERATURES

The Hondas have not had the measure of the Chevrolets the hotter it gets; they’ve been closer in cooler conditions. Sunday’s forecast should be in the high-70 or low-80-degree Fahrenheit range, with track temperatures likely to be in the high-100 or low-110 degree ballpark.

With the four Team Penske Chevrolets considerably further ahead though on one-lap pace, it may not matter too much. The Penske contingent are set to fight among themselves for the win if things go according to plan.

THE INTERNAL PENSKE BATTLE

How aggressive will each of the four drivers be? Josef Newgarden has the pole and the points lead, with Will Power second, Simon Pagenaud third and Helio Castroneves fourth.

Newgarden downplayed a crucial pole on Saturday, noting it was great for validation for his No. 2 team for this season but meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. Pagenaud’s win from pole here last year was the first for a polesitter at Sonoma since Power in 2011.

“Better late than never. I feel like we had a couple places this year where we were capable of getting poles. It just didn’t materialize,” Newgarden said.

“I’m really happy for the 2 car guys. They’ve wanted a pole all year. I think they deserved it. At a couple — a couple points I feel like we had shots at it. It just didn’t work out. I’m really happy for that.

“I don’t think it really means anything for the race. It really doesn’t. Win the pole, lose the race, lose the championship. Doesn’t really matter. Tomorrow is all that really matters.”

Power has the least to lose and where he finishes could play a major, major role on the championship.

THE WILD CARDS

What will the day hold for, among others…?

  • Takuma Sato, starting fifth, in his last race for Andretti Autosport and as top Honda on the grid?
  • His three other Andretti teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti in seventh, eighth and 11th?
  • Zachary Claman DeMelo, starting 21st, in his IndyCar debut?
  • Pretty much anyone in the second half of the field who doesn’t have their 2018 plans set?

Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

Getty Images
Leave a comment

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

—-

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org