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What to Watch For: IndyCar at Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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SONOMA, Calif. – We haven’t done one of these this year for the Verizon IndyCar Series, but it’s fitting to do when a championship is on the line.

At today’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the question is whether it will be Team Penske and Chevrolet that prevails with one of its four drivers – Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves or Will Power – or whether Scott Dixon will beat them all for Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda.

Today’s 85-lap race at Sonoma Raceway may well witness a number of other story lines develop.

PREVIEW
QUALIFYING REPORT

Here’s some of the additional items to watch for today:

TIRE DEGRADATION

Key to watch is how soon drivers will get off the Firestone red alternate tires, provided most if not all of the 22 drivers in the field start on them.

Here’s Firestone’s explanation of the tires this weekend: “Based on the feedback from drivers, we decided to bring more durable compounds,” said Cara Adams, Chief Engineer, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. “The 2017 Sonoma primary and alternate tires use the same race-proven specifications as the 2017 Barber tires. This compound is more durable than the 2016 Sonoma primary compound. The 2017 Sonoma alternate tire is similar to the 2016 Sonoma primary.”

And here’s some of the driver feedback about tires this weekend, and how the track surface changes on the low-grip surface depending on what rubber goes down just before:

Josef Newgarden: “I think what happened there is the track gripped up from the Pirelli World Challenge race (GT race; Sunday’s race has GTS before). I was surprised. It was a little slippery for my first lap because we went out first. After you got that off the track, it was pretty gripped up. I’m sure these guys would say the same thing. But it was pretty impressive how much grip was on the track.”

Scott Dixon: “I don’t think you really want to run too long. The degradation is high in the first couple laps on new tires, pretty strong, too.”

Sebastien Bourdais: “From one run to the other, you can lose about four-tenths on pure tire deg, or the conditions have changed that much that you don’t know if it’s in the change or in the conditions.”

TEMPERATURES

The Hondas have not had the measure of the Chevrolets the hotter it gets; they’ve been closer in cooler conditions. Sunday’s forecast should be in the high-70 or low-80-degree Fahrenheit range, with track temperatures likely to be in the high-100 or low-110 degree ballpark.

With the four Team Penske Chevrolets considerably further ahead though on one-lap pace, it may not matter too much. The Penske contingent are set to fight among themselves for the win if things go according to plan.

THE INTERNAL PENSKE BATTLE

How aggressive will each of the four drivers be? Josef Newgarden has the pole and the points lead, with Will Power second, Simon Pagenaud third and Helio Castroneves fourth.

Newgarden downplayed a crucial pole on Saturday, noting it was great for validation for his No. 2 team for this season but meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. Pagenaud’s win from pole here last year was the first for a polesitter at Sonoma since Power in 2011.

“Better late than never. I feel like we had a couple places this year where we were capable of getting poles. It just didn’t materialize,” Newgarden said.

“I’m really happy for the 2 car guys. They’ve wanted a pole all year. I think they deserved it. At a couple — a couple points I feel like we had shots at it. It just didn’t work out. I’m really happy for that.

“I don’t think it really means anything for the race. It really doesn’t. Win the pole, lose the race, lose the championship. Doesn’t really matter. Tomorrow is all that really matters.”

Power has the least to lose and where he finishes could play a major, major role on the championship.

THE WILD CARDS

What will the day hold for, among others…?

  • Takuma Sato, starting fifth, in his last race for Andretti Autosport and as top Honda on the grid?
  • His three other Andretti teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti in seventh, eighth and 11th?
  • Zachary Claman DeMelo, starting 21st, in his IndyCar debut?
  • Pretty much anyone in the second half of the field who doesn’t have their 2018 plans set?

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”