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.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500