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.

Michael Schumacher’s son to make F1 practice debut at Nurburgring

F1 Mick Schumacher
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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MARANELLO, Italy — Mick Schumacher, son of the legednary seven-time champion, will have an official Formula One drive during an F1 race weekend for the first time next week at the Nurburgring, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari said Tuesday.

Schumacher gets the practice drive in an Alfa Romeo on Oct. 9 on his home track in Germany as a member of Ferrari’s young driver program, taking over Antonio Giovinazzi’s car for the first session of the weekend.

“I am overjoyed to get this chance in free practice,” Schumacher said in a statement. “I’m going to prepare myself well, so that I can do the best possible job for the team and gain some valuable data for the weekend.”

The 21-year-old Schumacher leads the Formula 2 standings after winning races in Monza and Sochi. He won the European Formula 3 championship in 2018 and tested a Ferrari F1 car in Bahrain in April 2019. He also has done demonstration runs in his father’s old cars, most recently this month ahead of the Tuscan Grand Prix in a championship-winning 2004 Ferrari.

Michael Schumacher holds the F1 record with 91 victories, which Lewis Hamilton is on the verge of tying.

Ferrari said two other drivers in its academy program will also get practice drives in Formula One.

Callum Ilott, a British driver who is second to Mick Schumacher in F2, will drive an F1 Haas at the Nurburgring on the same day as Schumacher. Russian driver Robert Shwartzman will drive in practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Dec. 11, though Ferrari hasn’t said for which team.

The German round was added to the F1 schedule after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the season and will be officially known as the Eifel Grand Prix after a nearby mountain range. The Nurburgring last hosted F1 in 2013.