Preview: IndyCar will race to honor Wilson, and to close its season, at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. – It will be a difficult balance for the Verizon IndyCar Series to strike at Sonoma Raceway, but the 2015 season will continue – and conclude – this weekend in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (4 p.m. ET, Sunday, NBCSN).

It will offer the IndyCar community a chance to assemble one last time in 2015 as a group only a week after the loss of one of its kindest individuals and most talented drivers, Justin Wilson.

And quite honestly, it could be a positive for a community healing, grieving, and remembering to reassemble so soon after Pocono. Multiple drivers – notably NBCSN IndyCar analyst and regular Indianapolis 500 driver Townsend Bell and Indianapolis 500 and series champion Tony Kanaan – have said this week that heading to Sonoma, and being together, is what’s needed right now.

When Dan Wheldon was lost in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas, ultimately canceled, the paddock was left to end the season with pure grief and a litany of question marks.

The shockwaves of Wheldon’s death – the first in IndyCar in the social media age – produced ripple effects for months.

Greg Moore, too, was lost in a season finale, back in 1999 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

Yet this weekend the field will come together and race in Wilson’s honor. It’s easy to say, but the assumption is that Wilson would have wanted the series to continue, and press ahead with its championship.

So there’s going to be a mix of storylines still to put a period on to wrap up what’s been a frequently turbulent, recently tragic, but still at-times triumphant 2015 season for IndyCar.

Technically six drivers enter with a shot to win the championship, but realistically there are only three. Defending champion Will Power, eternal bridesmaid Helio Castroneves and American rising star Josef Newgarden have mathematical shots but would need an awful lot of help to win the title.

It leaves Juan Pablo Montoya, who has led the points all season in search of a second championship some 16 years after his first, Graham Rahal, a series ambassador enjoying a renaissance in his career year and first title shot, and Scott Dixon, who has a shot at a fourth crown while also looking to finish in the top-three in points for a tenth consecutive season.

In simplest terms, Montoya wins the title with first or second, and with third provided Rahal doesn’t win the race and secure maximum bonus points.

Rahal’s chances center mainly around beating Montoya to a higher spot on the podium. He can win the title with his third win of the year and Montoya fourth or worse, with second and Montoya ninth, or third and Montoya 13th. He also can win with scenarios down to finishing eighth, but that would require Montoya to have an Iowa-type last-place result or close.

Dixon can also capture the crown with first or second and Montoya and Rahal both encountering issues. At 47 points back, he’s more seriously in the frame thanks to double points, whereas he’d be mathematically eligible but realistically unlikely to take the title under standard single race points.

From a storyline standpoint, Rahal’s is better… which is not to slight Montoya, but given the events in recent months and throughout the 2015 season on the whole, Rahal would make a dynamic champion.

The 26-year-old American best represents the underdog. We’ve written a lot this year about the improved chemistry at the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team and Rahal’s own maturity and confidence increases.

But as a driver on a single-car team, Rahal has had to make due without anyone to bounce ideas off of; he’s also driving a Honda, which has consistently held the edge on fuel mileage in 2015, but struggled for outright pace and performance compared to Chevrolet. Strategy and luck have worked in his favor in both his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, but it gave a sense the stars were starting to align for this most unlikely of championship challenges.

The Mid-Ohio win, too, takes on an especially greater significance this weekend. It was there Rahal defended brilliantly against Wilson’s attack, but the two raced so cleanly and the Ohio native had his dream home race win. The 1-2 result was huge for Honda in its home race, and now stands as Wilson’s final podium.

Consider Rahal and Wilson were teammates back in 2008 with Newman/Haas Racing, consider Rahal was justifiably irate after being taken out at Pocono, and you know Rahal is determined to bring home the milkshakes in his No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake RLL Honda for “Bad Ass.”

For Montoya, 40 next month, his title win would come by way of season-long consistency peppered more with early season highlights. His pass of Will Power for the win at St. Petersburg was well executed; his passing and defense against Power for his second Indianapolis 500 legendary, and fittingly, came in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

But since that point, Montoya hasn’t had a singular standout drive, whereas Rahal has had several. His third place at Pocono marked his first podium finish in nine races. A series of fourth places spoke to his maximizing the circumstances, but not dominating them.

In recent months too, Montoya has almost been robotic with his frequent “you know what I mean?” and “it is what it is” comments in conference calls and interviews with reporters, whereas early this year the fiery and passionate Montoya was a media favorite. Rahal, by contrast, hasn’t missed a step in any of his many media sessions, and has become one of the best quotes in the series.

Still, either would be a worthy champion, and you hope if Montoya holds on as he theoretically should do given his 34-point gap to Rahal, he fully appreciates the moment and the magnitude of what he’s achieved, as he did at Indianapolis.

Cool as ever in third, 35-year-old Dixon could stealthily steal it in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and it would come as no surprise.

It’s been something of a roller coaster year for Dixon, who somehow hasn’t scored a podium finish since winning at Texas in June, seven races ago. He got the Long Beach monkey off his back and he’s been consistent as usual, but like Montoya, rarely, truly dynamic this season. Still, he is the defending race winner.

Beyond the six-pack of title contenders, the thoughts must go to Andretti Autosport, which races in the finale having lost its newest driver, and also looks for its fourth win of the season – which surprisingly, would lead the field among all teams in what’s been a trying, challenging season. Andretti and Team Penske have won three races apiece, while five other teams have won once or twice this season.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is driving as well as he ever has, and still scored a well earned second win of the year at Pocono, although obviously overshadowed given the circumstances. Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz will also look for wins; Andretti, of course, scored his first of two career wins at Sonoma nearly a decade ago. The team will, in fact, run its fourth car in tribute to Wilson with Oriol Servia a worthy driver on board.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will also have a storyline of note this weekend with the return of Russian Mikhail Aleshin, a fan favorite last season, in a third car. Aleshin made no secret of his desire to return to IndyCar when I spoke to him at Le Mans this year and he’ll get that shot this weekend. He’ll be a potential spoiler this weekend, along with teammates Ryan Briscoe and James Jakes.

Beyond Dixon at Ganassi, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball will seek to rebound from accidents at Pocono. Sebastian Saavedra will return as previously scheduled in the fourth car in place of Sage Karam, who must also be felt for in the wake of what happened at Pocono. Simon Pagenaud, too, looks to end a difficult first season with Team Penske with his first victory.

Newgarden did rather well here last year for Fisher; now he and CFH teammate Luca Filippi, back for his final start of the year, will look for one final double podium as they achieved at Toronto.

Elsewhere KVSH Racing/KV Racing Technology looks to recover from a double DNF in Pocono, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Bryan Herta Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing will seek to punch above their weight at the track. For Herta, Gabby Chaves returns to the site of where he won his Indy Lights title a year ago.

It’s going to be a difficult weekend on many levels. But the power of community should help the paddock, and ideally, the racing and championship battle moves the collective sadness back to joy.