What to watch for: IndyCar at Sonoma (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra)

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The Verizon IndyCar Series concludes its 2015 season with heavy hearts but still a focus on healing on track in today’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway.

A champion will be crowned and a race winner will be determined. They may be one in the same.

Here’s what to watch for in this, the 16th and final race of the IndyCar season, before the long offseason begins, today at 4 p.m. ET and 1 p.m. PT on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra, before the green flag at 2:07 p.m. PT.

THE CHAMPIONSHIP BOUT

Put simply, it’s Juan Pablo Montoya’s to lose, and with a fifth place grid position just ahead of closest rival Graham Rahal he should be smart enough to win the championship with the same savvy and consistency he’s had all season.

If a rare Montoya brain fade were to occur, or if a strategic situation were to screw him (a la Mid-Ohio), it opens the door to Rahal, potentially Scott Dixon and even the remaining three other contenders.

In recent history the most unlikely championship scenario came when Will Power made his unforced error at Fontana, spun out, and Ryan Hunter-Reay did just enough to secure the title in 2012. Montoya has everything to lose but provided he drives sensibly and doesn’t get hit by a random bout of misfortune, he should be the one holding the Astor Cup Sunday afternoon.

THE RACE ITSELF

The champion himself hasn’t won the final race of the season since 2009, when Dario Franchitti did so in a fuel mileage derby at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The five most recent final race winners and champions, all on ovals, are as follows:

  • 2010: Scott Dixon (race), Dario Franchitti (title)
  • 2011: Ed Carpenter (race*), Franchitti (title)
  • 2012: Carpenter (race), Ryan Hunter-Reay (title)
  • 2013: Will Power (race), Dixon (title)
  • 2014: Tony Kanaan (race), Power (title)

*Las Vegas, the scheduled 2011 season finale, was canceled after Dan Wheldon lost his life in an accident.

Strategic scrambles have jumbled several races this year, and while it should be straightforward for those at the front of the field to stay there, any ill-timed caution could throw a monkey wrench into things.

THE TIRE FALL-OFF

Undoubtedly the biggest talking point on the ground this weekend regarding the on-track activity has been the tires, as Firestone brought new compounds but the same construction to the notoriously abrasive Sonoma track.

The reactions I’ve got when asking about the fall-off were priceless. One driver replied when I asked how he was, “Better than the tires.” Another engineer simply laughed, heartily, when I asked the level of fall-off.

Put simply tire conservation is going to be a major story today, regardless of temperature. The fall-off has been noticeable with the ambient anywhere from the mid-70s to high-90s, and the track temps from the low 90s all the way up to a weekend-high 129.

Dale Harrigle, chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports and manager of race tire development, described the tire change thusly to Robin Miller during NBCSN’s qualifying show on Saturday: “That’s what the IndyCar Series asks us for. It was almost too easy for the alternates. Anytime we have that we don’t have the mix of alternates and primaries. We made a step. Made primaries softer and took a step with the alternates for this year. It will put some more strategy back into it.”

Watch for stops somewhat early in the race, with more significant, more substantial rounds of stops anywhere from maybe Lap 15 through to Lap 21 or 22. It should be a three-stop race, but I wonder and probably wouldn’t be surprised if anyone’s going to gamble even further and push harder to try a four-stopper. It might be needed out of necessity.

THE SPOILERS 

Besides the “six-pack” of title contenders, even the remote ones, there are several other drivers to keep an eye on in this, the last race of the year:

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay, starting third, seeks series-high third win of year
  • Simon Pagenaud, starting fourth, seeks first win of year, first with Penske
  • Charlie Kimball, starting seventh, a traditionally strong road-course driver
  • Marco Andretti, starting eighth, past Sonoma winner
  • Sebastian Saavedra, starting 10th, returning after couple month layoff
  • P11 on down… Helio Castroneves in 15th is the one guy to watch

THINKING OF JUSTIN

It’s been a tough weekend to say the least with the loss of Justin Wilson omnipresent in the paddock.

From a personal perspective, I have to admit I simply haven’t been in the right mindset to cover a weekend as well as ordinarily I feel I could.

But if there’s one thing that’s been a comfort this weekend, it’s been the power of community.

The embraces, the chats, the discussions … it’s more than things you can print, it’s been the stories we’ve shared about Wilson and the benevolent soul he was, and the appreciation for what he was as a person.

Today, we race.

And that’s the perfect medicine for what’s been a challenging week.

World of Outlaws release 2023 Sprint Car Series schedule

2023 Outlaws Sprint schedule
World of Outlaws
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The 2023 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series schedule features 87 races, almost identical to the last year’s number, to be contested at 36 venues across 19 states. With cancelations for mostly weather, they closed out this year’s calendar on November 5 with 69 events in the books. Carson Macedo won a series high 11 races.

In 2022, David Gravel chased Brad Sweet into the three-race finale on the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in one of the most hotly contested championships in Outlaws history. Sweet emerged victorious for the fourth straight year.

For the 19th consecutive season, the Outlaws Sprints will begin their season at Volusia Speedway Park for the DIRTcar Nationals from Feb. 9-11 and will return March 5-6 for another two-day show before hitting the road with a three-track swing into Pennsylvania to take on the Posse.

MORE: 2023 World of Outlaws Late Model Schedule

“Every year we continue to build the best schedule we can for drivers and fans across the country,” said World of Outlaws CEO Brian Carter is a series release. “I’m excited for the journey we’ve put together, which includes the biggest races in Sprint Car racing, our new Spring Swing through Pennsylvania, the thrill of combining the World of Outlaws and ‘Bike Week’ and so much more.”

Some tracks returning from hiatus and one brand new course include 81 Speedway in Park City, Kans. in April and again in October, Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon City, Ill. in April, Ogilvie (Minn.) Raceway in June and BAPS Motor Speedway in York Haven, Penn.

BAPS hosts its first race in more than 30 years when the track was known as Susquehanna Speedway. This midweek show will give the local Pennsylvania Posse 14 attempts to beat the traveling Outlaws.

Ogilvie Speedway is completely new to the series and makes it the 224th different venue they will have challenged.

MORE: Brad Sweet protects his place in history

Notably missing from the calendar are Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park, Cotton Bowl Speedway in Paige, Texas, Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway and the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track.

In addition to the new spring Pennsylvania Swing, the second date at Volusia Speedway will coincide with Daytona Beach’s Bike Week and bring new eyes to the sport.

Knoxville Raceway adds another multi-night show to the calendar in April, giving this track eight sanctioned events in 2023.

And of course, there are plenty of mainstays and high dollar events, such as the Memorial Day Spectacular at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway, the 35th running of the Brad Doty Classic in July and the Labor Day Spectacular at Gray’s Harbor in Elma, Wash.

Several big paydays are on the line in 2023 including the 40th annual Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio paying $175,000 to the winner, the Huset’s High Bank Nationals’ $250,000-to-win finale and the grandaddy of them all, the 62nd Knoxville Nationals with a total purse exceeding $1 million.

2023 Outlaws Sprint Schedule

Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)

Sunday-Monday, March 5-6 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)
Friday-Saturday, March 10-11 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, March 17 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday, March 18 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday, March 24 – Talladega Short Track (Eastaboga, AL)
Saturday, March 25 – Magnolia Motor Speedway (Columbus, MS)
Friday, March 31-Saturday, April 1 – Devil’s Bowl Speedway (Mesquite, TX)

Friday, April 7 – US-36 Raceway (Osborn, MO)
Saturday, April 8 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, April 14-15 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Friday-Saturday, April 21-22 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday, April 28 – Tri-City Speedway (Granite City, IL)
Saturday, April 29 – Tri-State Speedway (Haubstadt, IN)

Friday-Saturday, May 5-6 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, May 10 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday-Saturday, May 12-13 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Friday, May 19 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Saturday, May 20 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, May 26-27 – Atomic Speedway (Chillicothe, OH)
Monday, May 29 – Lawrenceburg Speedway (Lawrenceburg, IN)

Friday, June 2 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, June 3 – Ogilvie Raceway (Ogilvie, MN)
Friday-Saturday, June 9-10 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday-Saturday, June 16-17 – Beaver Dam Raceway (Beaver Dam, WI)
Wednesday-Saturday, June 21-24 – Huset’s Speedway (Brandon, SD)
Friday, June 30-Saturday, July 1 – Cedar Lake Speedway (New Richmond, WI)

Friday, July 7 – 34 Raceway (West Burlington, IA)
Saturday, July 8 – Wilmot Raceway (Wilmot, WI)
Tuesday, July 11 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Friday-Saturday, July 14-15 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, July 19 – BAPS Motor Speedway (York Haven, PA)
Friday-Saturday, July 21-22 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday-Sunday, July 29-30 – Weedsport Speedway (Weedsport, NY)

Friday-Saturday, Aug. 4-5 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 9-12 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 17-19 – Jackson Motorplex (Jackson, MN)
Friday, Aug. 25 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, Aug. 26 – Red River Valley Speedway (West Fargo, ND)
Thursday, Aug. 31-Saturday, September 2 – Skagit Speedway (Alger, WA)

Monday, Sept. 4 – Grays Harbor Raceway (Elma, WA)
Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 7-9 – Silver Dollar Speedway (Chico, CA)
Friday, Sept. 15 – Keller Auto Speedway (Hanford, CA)
Saturday, Sept. 16 – Placerville Speedway (Placerville, CA)
Friday, Sept. 22 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Saturday, Sept. 23 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, Sept. 29-30 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)

Friday-Saturday, Oct. 6-7 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, Oct. 13 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Saturday, Oct. 14 – Lakeside Speedway (Kansas City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, Oct. 20-21 – TBA

Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 1-4 – The Dirt Track at Charlotte (Concord, NC)