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

IndyCar
0 Comments

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

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

0 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds