RHR, Kimball bank podiums; others throughout field star under-the-radar at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. – As tends to be the case in a season finale race, plenty of good stories get overlooked in the wake of the champion being crowned and the race winner being decided.

It was no different again in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to cap off the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Beyond race winner and champion Scott Dixon, championship rival Juan Pablo Montoya suffering an inglorious defeat and Graham Rahal’s dream season finally coming to an end, these were some of the stories of note on Sunday:

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay continued his final quarter surge with a runner-up finish to cap off the season. His last four races from Iowa to Sonoma? First, seventh, first and second – and a leap from 14th to sixth in the points. “It was a good finish to the season, that’s for sure… we finished sixth which is crazy coming from 11th in the championship this morning,” said the driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda.
  • Charlie Kimball banked his second podium of the year, first since a third at the Indianapolis 500 and first on a road or street course since coming third at Detroit race two in 2014. “You know, Chip loves winners and to be able to put the NovoLog FlexPen up on the podium. It’s a pretty good day at the office,” said Kimball, who ends the season 12th in points.
  • In fifth, Ryan Briscoe recorded his first top-five finish of the season in the No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda.
  • Rodolfo Gonzalez scored a career-best ninth place finish in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, a result that would pay huge dividends for the No. 18 car in the year-end Leaders’ Circle standings. More on this result to come in a separate post next week on MotorSportsTalk.
  • Mikhail Aleshin made it into the top-10 on his return in the No. 77 SMP Racing Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, after starting 14th. It was Aleshin’s first IndyCar start since, incidentally, Sonoma last year – he was seriously injured in an accident at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana last August.
  • The three off-sequence drivers of note who started on Firestone’s black primary compound – Marco Andretti, Oriol Servia and Sebastian Saavedra – ended 11th, 12th and 13th but all ran in the top three at one stage. Saavedra led twice for 12 laps.
  • Running as he has all year – consistently but quietly – Bryan Herta Autosport’s Gabby Chaves finished 14th and secured Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the No. 98 Bowers & Wilkins/Curb Honda. Even more impressively, in 15th in points he finished ahead of several notable drivers.

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?