Sonoma almost exclusively a Penske and Ganassi domain

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Going into this weekend’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the 15th of 19 IZOD IndyCar Series races this year (4 p.m. EST, Sunday, NBCSN), the question is the same as entering Mid-Ohio: can anyone knock the Ganassi and Penske teams from the top of the standings?

After the unpredictability of the first half of this season, the established power teams of Ganassi, Penske and Andretti Autosport are undefeated in the last seven races. Collectively, the three of them have won all eight prior IndyCar-sanctioned races at Sonoma, with Andretti scoring the first two (2005 and 2006) and Penske (2008, 2010-12) and Ganassi (2007, 2009) taking the remaining six.

The last three years in particular, no team has been able to even enter the same zip code as the Ganassi and Penske squads. Since 2010, Penske and Ganassi drivers have taken 15 of the 18 Firestone Fast Six appearances on Saturday. On Sunday, only one driver outside Ganassi or Penske has even scored a top five – that was Rubens Barrichello in fourth a year ago.

You’d have to go back to 2009 to find the last time more than one driver outside of the Ganassi and Penske teams have invaded the top five.

Here’s the breakdown, with bolded drivers ones outside of Ganassi and Penske in either the top five in the race or Fast Six on Saturday:

Race Top 5

2012: Ryan Briscoe (Penske), Will Power (Penske), Dario Franchitti (Target Ganassi), Rubens Barrichello (KV), Graham Rahal (Service Central Ganassi)
2011: Power (Penske), Helio Castroneves (Penske), Briscoe (Penske), Franchitti (Target Ganassi), Scott Dixon (Target Ganassi)
2010: Power (Penske), Dixon (Target Ganassi), Franchitti (Target Ganassi), Briscoe (Penske), Castroneves (Penske)
2009: Franchitti (Target Ganassi), Briscoe (Penske), Mike Conway (Dreyer & Reinbold), Mario Moraes (KV), Hideki Mutoh (Andretti)

Firestone Fast 6

2012: Power (Penske), Briscoe (Penske), Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon), Castroneves (Penske), Dixon (Target Ganassi), Franchitti (Target Ganassi)
2011: Power (Penske), Helio Castroneves (Penske), Briscoe (Penske), Franchitti (Target Ganassi), Dixon (Target Ganassi), James Hinchcliffe (Newman/Haas)
2010: Power (Penske), Castroneves (Penske), Franchitti (Target Ganassi), Alex Tagliani (FAZZT), Briscoe (Penske), Dixon (Target Ganassi)
2009: Franchitti (Target Ganassi), Briscoe (Penske), Castroneves (Penske), Marco Andretti (Andretti), Mutoh (Andretti), Rahal (Newman/Haas)

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

Follow@KyleMLavigne