IndyCar

Why Sunday’s IndyCar championship will be part-race, part-wrestling match

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Think of Wrestlemania on wheels.

That’s what Sunday’s season-ending – and more importantly, the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship-deciding – Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is shaping up to be.

While there won’t be any sleeper holds or pile-drivers or cage matches, each of the four drivers still in contention for the IndyCar title will definitely have their hands full in their bid to end the day with one of them being anointed the series’ new champion.

The storylines are almost right out of the WWE playbook:

* Two grizzled veterans – four-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon and former IndyCar champ and this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power – vs. two of IndyCar’s brightest young stars, defending series champion Josef Newgarden and 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

* Power and Team Penske teammate Newgarden are the longest of longshots. The only way either driver can still claim the championship is to win the race, period.

* But even that may not be enough. Even though they’re still contenders mathematically, Power and Newgarden have to hope both Dixon and Rossi have something happen to their respective races and race cars – be it mechanical failure, a wreck or something else – early on for either Penske driver to overcome a massive 87-point deficit going into Sunday’s race.

* Speaking of mathematics, Dixon and Rossi need to finish last and second-to-last in the race for Newgarden or Power to have any realistic chance at having one of the greatest comebacks in IndyCar history.

* Also like the WWE, there’s plenty of global homeland pride in this race: Power from Australian and Dixon from New Zealand vs. young Americans Newgarden and Rossi. Get those flags ready, guys!

* For the 13th consecutive year, the IndyCar championship comes down to the final race of the season – as it should. However, sadly, this will also be the last IndyCar race at Sonoma Raceway for the immediate future. Laguna Seca has been awarded the season-ending race beginning in 2019. There is hope, particularly among the four contenders and most of their fellow racers, that the series will return to Sonoma again at some point in the near future.

* Instead of body slamming each other in the turns, this will be a race of finesse and inches. Sonoma Raceway is one of the tighter courses on the schedule, putting passing at a premium. It’s real easy to go into a turn thinking you have it made, only to wind up touching another car and resulting in potential game- and championship-changing outcomes. That’s why Saturday’s qualifying will be crucial for all drivers, but especially the four title hopefuls.

* Speaking of qualifying, while winning the race is the ultimate goal, Power and Newgarden have to qualify higher than Dixon and Rossi to go into Sunday’s race with some kind of advantage. Power leads the series with four poles (and 54 in his Indy car career) and is potentially staring at the most important pole opportunity of the season, if not his career.

* While Duane “The Rock” Johnson or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or Mick “Mankind” Foley aren’t entered in the race, their style of wrasslin’ will likely be found in how each of the four contenders attack Sunday’s event. Like a wrestler scoping out his opponent, each contender will have to weigh risk vs. reward. Power and Newgarden have little to lose and everything to gain, so they can afford to be uber-aggressive, take chances they normally don’t take and make the race – and their opponents – come to them. For them, Sunday is not about worrying about points at all. They have just one thing on their agenda: as late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was famous for saying “Just Win, Baby!”

* On the flip side of that scenario, Dixon will likely have to be more defensive to stave off Rossi, who will have to go on the offensive if he hopes to pass Dixon for the championship, while also maintaining a semblance of defending against making a costly mistake. Both drivers’ race outcomes will be predicated on how many points they can earn. Dixon holds a 29-point edge on Rossi heading into Sunday. IndyCar is awarding double points to all drivers, meaning that the winner will receive 100 points for victory as opposed to the usual 50 points for a triumph.

* In addition, let’s not forget what could be the potential difference between championship and second-place in the final standings: the four bonus points available. Drivers can earn one point for leading a lap, another point for earning the pole position, and two points for leading the most laps.

* Spoiler alert, spoiler alert: If, late in the race, Power and Newgarden find themselves unlikely to win the race and resulting championship, that doesn’t mean their race or season is over. Rather, they can wind up playing a spoiler role to both Dixon and Rossi.

* This race also will be a time to bid adieu and say goodbye to Verizon as entitlement sponsor for the IndyCar Series. While efforts are ongoing to find a successor, Verizon’s positive impact upon the sport – particularly at a time where IndyCar has seen significant upward growth in the last few years – will be felt for years to come.

Well, that’s a quick synopsis of what potentially may happen in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Sonoma. Race fans – both attending in-person or watching on NBCSN – can expect an exciting and challenging championship race.

And while the contenders won’t be putting their opponents in sleeper holds or half-Nelson’s or clotheslining each other – at least we hope not – they’ll still be doing a lot of grappling for sure.

Of their steering wheel, of course. And who does that the best will be the one who wrestles the championship away.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA’s Bill Auberlen joins NASCAR America to discuss this weekend’s race at Lime Rock

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Turner Motorsport GTD driver Bill Auberlen joined NBC Sports’ Marty Snyder on NASCAR America Presents the Motorsports Hour Thursday to discuss a variety of topics, including Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race at Lime Rock Park.

Auberlen, alongside co-driver Robby Foley, enters Lime Rock with a great amount of momentum after finishing on the GTD podium at Watkins Glen and taking the GTD class honors in the most recent IMSA race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

There’s also an extra incentive for the duo to win this weekend as well, as Auberlen is one win away from tying Scott Pruett for the most IMSA victories all-time.

Both drivers will have to be on their A-game this weekend, however, as Auberlen stated that Lime Rock is one of the tougher circuits on the IMSA calendar and compared the 1.5-mile Connecticut road course to a short track.

“It’s what we call the bullring of our season,” Auberlen said. “It is a 54-second lap and we’re going to go around it a million times before the end of the day. It’s going to be a hot one, and I think whoever survives this is going to be on the podium.”

Luckily for the GTD and GTLM teams, with no Protoype and LMP2 entries competing at Lime Rock this weekend, the worry of having to yield to entries from the faster classes is gone.

“These Protoypes are so fast now, that interacting with them, you can’t imagine,” Auberlen said. “We have radars in our car that can alert us when they are coming.

“They get on you so fast that if you’re not always looking or something is not telling you they’re coming, you could have a problem and catch into them. That’s gone. Now it’s going to be focus-forward. You’re going to be focused on everything ahead of you. You got GLTM in there at the same time, but they’re virtually the same speed as us – just a little bit faster.

“It’s going to be nice. When you stand on that podium you might be able to go for an overall victory.”

Live race coverage of IMSA’s Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park begins at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBCsports.com and the NBC Sports app with an encore presentation of the race airing later in the evening at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter