PREVIEW: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

Associated Press
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SONOMA, Calif. – A fun and eventful 15 races are in the books on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and the curtain will close on the campaign with this weekend’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. PT/6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) from Sonoma Raceway.

Team Penske will secure its third championship in the last decade, to go along with Sam Hornish Jr. (2006) and Will Power (2014), with only Power and Simon Pagenaud mathematically eligible.

Pagenaud holds a 43-point lead over Power heading into the weekend, and Power would need to pull an encore of what Scott Dixon did last year to another Team Penske driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, to steal the title at the final round. Dixon entered 47 points down to Montoya but won the race, and edged him on a tiebreaker of more victories.

The title battle is first and foremost among the story lines this weekend, but certainly not the only one.

Here are some of the other talking points going into Sonoma:

2016 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma – Talking Points

Pagenaud vs. Power 

See the separate breakout post here on the two primary title combatants, but in two quick bullet points, here’s all you need to know about where Pagenaud and Power are heading into the Sonoma finale:

  • Pagenaud, who’s led the points since Phoenix back in April, has said he loves the pressure and has driven smartly most of this season. Although he’s not been immune to mistakes, his focus and determination is such that he won’t want to have worked this hard, and come this far, to give up now.
  • Power, who is down 43 points, has nothing to lose – much as Scott Dixon did last year when he was down 47 points. Power has dominated at Sonoma in the past (won in 2010, 2011 and 2013) and can go for broke to try to gather the pole and the win. If he needs to parlay an aggressive strategy with Team Penske president and his strategist Tim Cindric, he can too – that has worked for him this year as well.

The silly season in overdrive

Watkins Glen two weeks ago saw all the conversations bubbling beneath the surface come to a far more rapid boil than we’ve seen in IndyCar in a bit of time.

With roughly half the field of 22 drivers uncertain of their 2017 plans, the last race of the year provides that last chance to put in a memorable performance to end the year on a high note.

Dixon’s title reign, Target’s sponsor run to end

As I wrote at the time it was announced, it doesn’t seem logical or real to think of Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar without Target. But life goes on regardless, and Ganassi will still be in the sport next year, likely with four cars once again, even without Target gracing the sidepods of Dixon’s car.

The memories have been incredible to capture over 27 years. The stats have been otherworldly; this year caps a 20-year run of Ganassi and Target dominance that has seen the pair win more than half the championships, and four Indianapolis 500s.

Scott Dixon hasn’t had another sponsor since moving to Ganassi’s team midway through 2002 but he’ll have one – or several – new ones next year. Anyway, Sunday marks his last day as the defending champion at least for 2016. And it will start the question that lingers for 2017 of whether Dixon can do his usual return to the top, as he did in 2013 and 2015.

In the eyes of some, Charlie’s not an angel

Charlie Kimball has been in the spotlight more this year for his driving style and race craft rather than his overall, marked improvements in qualifying and race results.

It was hard to place blame on him for either the Graham Rahal or Will Power accidents at Watkins Glen, even though many did. Realistically, both were racing incidents caused by two drivers fighting over the same piece of real estate. These things happen.

Kimball was on the podium here last year and a similar result this go-around will ensure a top-10 finish in the championship, potentially a career-best to end ahead of ninth, which he was in 2013. This year, he’s ended between fifth and 12th in all but two races. He needs another solid result but most importantly, a clean weekend for his 100th career start.

Double points palooza

Love it or hate it, IndyCar teams and drivers once again have to accept the fact that Sonoma pays double points. And as such, this race more than any other except the Indianapolis 500 can really shake up the championship standings.

Here’s the two close battles to look out for, beyond the title:

  • The battle for third: Dixon and Helio Castroneves are tied on 451 points. Then the next four drivers, Josef Newgarden (446), Tony Kanaan (427), Graham Rahal (403) and Carlos Munoz (402), are within 49 points. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be much, but with double points any of those six drivers could realistically end third.
  • The final spots in the top-10. After Munoz in eighth, Kimball is ninth (389), with James Hinchcliffe (380), Alexander Rossi (370), Sebastien Bourdais (364), Ryan Hunter-Reay (363) and Juan Pablo Montoya (363) are covered by only 26 points. Just two of those six drivers will end in the top-10.

The final word

No other drivers need be quoted than the two title protagonists.

Here’s Pagenaud: “Now, the job for our HPE Chevy team is a little different than usual, as we are only fighting Will Power. Our season has been incredible. I am so proud of my team and what we have already accomplished with six poles and four wins. Now we want the championship and may the best win.”

And here’s Power: “It’s been a wild season. The No. 12 Verizon Chevy team didn’t have the best start even beyond the stuff at St. Petersburg (which Power missed with an inner-ear infection). We got it together, though, and being in a position to win the championship is awesome.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 16
11 a.m.-12:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com
2:45 p.m.-4 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com

Saturday, Sept. 17
11-11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live), NBCSN at 2 p.m. PT (tape)
3:05-4:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (live)

Sunday, Sept. 18
11:30 a.m.-noon – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com
3:10 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:30 p.m. – NBCSN on air
3:43 p.m. – Start engines command
3:50 p.m. – GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (85 laps/202.7 miles), NBCSN (live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Ryan Hunter-Reay
3. Charlie Kimball
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Ryan Briscoe
6. Juan Pablo Montoya
7. Will Power (pole)
8. Takuma Sato
9. Rodolfo Gonzalez
10. Mikhail Aleshin

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. Graham Rahal