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


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.


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 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.


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.


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


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.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”