IndyCar preview: The 2018 championship-deciding Grand Prix of Sonoma

Photo: IndyCar

For the 13th consecutive year, the Verizon IndyCar Series sees its championship go to the final race of the season. This year, everything will be decided on Sunday’s IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Sonoma Raceway serves as the season finale for the fourth consecutive year, though this will also be its final year on the IndyCar schedule. In the previous four years in which Sonoma served as the finale, only once did the championship actually change hands – Dixon overtook Juan Montoya to take the title in 2015, while Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden retained their leads to take the championships in 2016 and 2017.

This year, it’s Dixon leading the championship, 29 points ahead of Alexander Rossi and 87 ahead of the Team Penske duo of Will Power and Josef Newgarden. However, with Power and Newgarden needing Dixon and Rossi to finish 24th or worse in a field consisting of 25 cars, the only two with a realistic chance are Dixon and Rossi.

Talking points ahead of the season finale are below.

Championship Showdown

Scott Dixon leads Alexander Rossi entering Sonoma Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

It comes as no surprise that the biggest story ahead of Sonoma is the championship battle, which pits one of the all-time greats (Dixon) against a hungry newcomer (Rossi).

There are a number of championship scenarios in play, but things can be boiled down to a few simple facts.

Rossi, who trails Dixon by 29 points, needs to win to give himself the best chance of overtaking Dixon. Scoring maximum points (104) – one bonus point for the pole, one for leading a lap, and two for leading the most laps – is his most ideal scenario. In that case, if Dixon finishes third or worse, Rossi is the champion.

In fact, the above scenario still plays out in Rossi’s favor even if he doesn’t get the bonuses for pole and most laps led…so long as Dixon does not get those bonus points.

For Dixon, a win or a second-place finish would clinch his fifth championship no matter what Rossi does. And if neither driver wins, Dixon needs only to keep Rossi in sight to clinch the title.

It all sounds easy on both sides…but it isn’t. Case and point: the 2015 season finale in Sonoma (by coincidence, the most recent of Dixon’s championships). Dixon entered that race 47 points down to then leader Juan Montoya.

A caution on Lap 33 of that year’s race jumbled up the strategy and dropped front-runners like Dixon and Montoya into the middle of the pack. A Lap 39 restart saw Montoya bump teammate Will Power into a spin, damaging his own front wing in the process and forcing an unscheduled pit stop for a new wing.

While Dixon came back through the pack to win, Montoya could do no better than sixth at race’s end, allowing Dixon to take his fourth title.

So, the championship picture can get flipped on its head in a matter of seconds. Don’t be surprised if this goes right down to the final laps.

Qualifying Will Be at a Premium

Scott Dixon has had to come from the back to the front on multiple occasions this year. He started 17th at ISM Raceway, but finished fourth. He took the green flag in 18th to start the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, but charged forward to finish second.

At Pocono Raceway, he came home third after starting 13th.

However, with Sonoma notoriously difficult to pass on, such charges would be ultra difficult for Dixon, or Rossi should he struggle in qualifying.

An interesting subplot will be if Dixon can overcome qualifying deficiencies that have plagued him on road courses in the second half of the season. In the three previous events on natural terrain road courses (Road America, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Portland International Raceway), Dixon has failed to advance to the Firestone Fast Six.

Conversely Rossi has made every Fast Six since the double-header on the Raceway at Belle Isle in Detroit.

Sonoma has also seen first-lap carnage before on four separate occasions. Dixon was even caught up in one of those incidents (2009).

In each case, the incident originated behind the front two rows. So, if Dixon or Rossi qualifies worse than fourth, they could be in a dangerous spot if carnage breaks out.

The Spoilers

Will Power and Josef Newgarden are mathematically still alive in the championship, and could also play big spoiler roles. Photo: IndyCar

The aforementioned Power and Newgarden, still technically alive in the championship picture, lead the list of potential spoilers. Power has won at Sonoma three times before, while Newgarden was last year’s pole sitter. They may be (very) long shots to win the title, but that doesn’t mean they won’t factor in.

Sebastien Bourdais also could be a major spoiler. A winner on the streets of St. Petersburg to open the year, he has three other top five finishes on road and street circuits, and he came from 24th and last on the grid at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to finish sixth.

Sebastien Bourdais’ prowess on road/street courses means he could be a big factor this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Bourdais’ prowess on the road and street circuits means he should be a very prominent force this weekend.

Factor in Takuma Sato (the winner from Portland) and James Hinchcliffe (winner at Iowa Speedway), and you have plenty of names who could be big factors this weekend.

A Fond Farewell to Sonoma and Verizon

This weekend marks the end for two critical parts of the Verizon IndyCar Series. This is slated to be the final race at Sonoma Raceway, which has hosted IndyCar races since 2005 (the track also hosted an IndyCar race back in 1970).

Among the highlights in the Sonoma IndyCar races are Marco Andretti’s first career win in 2006, contact between Andretti and then teammate Dario Franchitti as they battled for the lead in 2007 (Dixon went on to win that day), and the aforementioned 2015 title showdown involving Dixon and Montoya.

Also, Sonoma marks the final race for Verizon as the title sponsor of the Verizon IndyCar Series. Verizon stepped up to title sponsorship of the series in 2014 after several years as a sponsor of Team Penske – Izod was the series’ title sponsor prior to Verizon, which signed a five-year contract ahead of the 2014 season.

Verizon announced last October that they would be departing as the series’ title sponsor after the 2018 season, and the search for a new title sponsor remains ongoing.


  • Graham Rahal enters this weekend without a win in 2018. Rahal has won a race every year since 2015, and he’ll be highly motivated to keep that streak alive, especially given that his teammate Sato won at Portland.
  • Eight rookies are entered this weekend: Santino Ferrucci, Pietro Fittipaldi, Jack Harvey, Colton Herta, Jordan King, Matheus Leist, Patricio O’Ward, and Zach Veach. (Of note: Herta and O’Ward are making their first IndyCar starts). The rookie presence on the grid represents a fascinating side-story to keep an eye on.
  • Assuming he takes the green-flag this Sunday, Tony Kanaan will be making his 300th consecutive IndyCar start.

The Final Word(s)…

From main title combatants Dixon and Rossi.

Dixon: “Well, I think we were a bit lucky in Portland, and you have got to take those days. We’ve been on the other side of it before. Some situations we’ve lost championships like that, too. It sucks when you’re on the other side. Maybe it happens to us at Sonoma. We hope it doesn’t, but it has full potential. We’ll go there, we’ll try to have the fastest car we can prepare, qualify where we can and put our heads down. That’s what we can do. Everyone on the PNC Bank team has been focused and working hard and we’ll just keep pushing like we have been all season and see what happens.”

Rossi: “It’s crazy to think that we are already at the end of the season. 2018 has been a great year for many reasons and I am excited to be able to close it out at my home track in front of an always large group of family and friends. We have had some really strong pace in the second half of the year, so we will be looking to execute the same thing this weekend, and hopefully, it will be enough to walk away with our first INDYCAR championship.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 14

11:00 a.m. – 11:45 (2:00 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 1,; NBCSN (4 p.m. ET, same-day delay)

3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 2, NBCSN (live)

Saturday, Sept. 15

11:00 a.m. – 11:45 (2:00 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. ET). – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 3, (live)

3:00 p.m. – 4:15 p.m. (6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (8 p.m. ET, same-day delay)

Sunday, Sept. 16

3:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. ET)- Driver introductions

3:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on air

3:40 p.m. (6:40 p.m. ET) – INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma (85 laps/202.7 miles), NBCSN (live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Josef Newgarden (pole)
3. Will Power
4. Scott Dixon
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Graham Rahal
7. Marco Andretti
8. Ryan Hunter-Reay
9. Sebastien Bourdais
10. Conor Daly

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Josef Newgarden.
2. Will Power
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Takuma Sato
6. Scott Dixon



Tony Kanaan at peace with IndyCar career end: ‘I’ll always be an Indianapolis 500 winner’


INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.

Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.

The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.

Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.

He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.

Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.

He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.

Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.

It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.

Lauren Kanaan with daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Bruce Martin Photo).

Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.

Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.

Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.

She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.

After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.

One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.

Tony Kanaan shares a moment with former engineer Eric Cowdin (Bruce Martin Photo).

Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.

Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.

Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.

But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.

Tony Kanaan gets emotional during an interview after the Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.

“Yeah, it was emotional.”

Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.

“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.

“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.

“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”

At one point in the second half of the race, Kanaan passed Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by driving through the grass on the backstretch.

“That was OK, right?” Kanaan said. “That is one thing I have not done in 22 years here. Even (team owner) Sam Schmidt came to me and said, ‘That was a good one.’

“That was a farewell move.”

On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.

“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.

“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’

“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.

Tony Kanaan is embraced by his wife, Lauren, after finishing 16th in the 107th Indianapolis 500 ((Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.

“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.

“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”

After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.

There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.

Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.

“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC “It wasn’t enough.

“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.

“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.

“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”

Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.

“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”

Tony Kanaan hugs his son Max before the Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.

Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.

“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.

Tony Kanaan kisses his daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”

Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.

“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.

“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.

“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network)