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