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

Previous F1 competition doesn’t guarantee IndyCar success at COTA

Manor F1 Photo
Manor F1 Photo
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AUSTIN, Texas – Familiarity does not breed success, according to three NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have previous experience at Circuit of the Americas in the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Several other drivers, including IndyCar Series rookie Patricio O’Ward, competed in the LMPC IMSA race in 2017.

Although the course is the same – 20-turns and 3.41-miles – the cars are completely different. The highly-advanced, technologically-driven Formula One cars are advanced beyond the realm of anything allowed in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s more about the driver in IndyCar, which uses an impressive, but simpler formula to help showcase driver skill more than technology in its races.

Money buys speed in Formula One, but an IndyCar team doesn’t need a $400 million budget to go racing. It can get by on $5 millions to $10 million a year and contend for plenty of race victories and championships.

Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi drove in five Formula One races with Manor in 2015. The above photo is from his only F1 contest at COTA that season. He was the first driver ever to turn laps at COTA shortly after it was constructed in 2012.

Rossi had his best F1 finish in the 2015 United States Grand Prix when he started 17thand finished 12th.

“When I’ve come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing that there was no chance to ever really do anything from a results perspective,” Rossi said. “To could come here to a track that I’ve spent a lot of time at, not necessarily driven a whole lot, but spent a huge amount of time at. To come into this weekend’s race, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as any, to win the race would be pretty cool.

“There’s kind of an almost unfinished business box that we’d like to tick here in some way. I’m very excited to get the weekend started.”

Chilton raced the entire F1 season in 2013 and 2014 with Marussia. He started 21stand finished 21stin 2013. He started in the first 16 races during the 2014 F1 season but was out of a ride by the time F1 arrived at COTA that season.

Me and Alex probably had pretty similar experiences,” Chilton told NBC Sports.com “Obviously the more laps are better — but the car we were in, we weren’t doing much racing, so the sort of racing experience part isn’t going to help.

“It’s good to be back. I first came here in 2013 for the (United States) Grand Prix. I loved the track. I love the city. I really enjoyed the whole facility, the race track. It’s a pretty long track in an Indy car but it’s got lots of overtaking potential for us and hopefully we’ll put on a great show.

“It’s great to have an English band like Muse on Saturday night, as well.”

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has the most experience at COTA of any driver in the field for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. He competed in 97 F1 contests from 2014-2018 before becoming an IndyCar rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this season.

Ericsson was 15thin 2015, 14thin 2016, 15thin 2017 and 10thin last year’s USGP.

“I’ve been here quite a few times,” Ericsson said. “It’s one of the best tracks on F1 and I think it’s great we are going here with INDYCAR. It’s going to be a great weekend.

“The racing should be very good. It’s already good on F1 on this track and from what I’ve done in INDYCAR, it’s going to be a really good show from everyone and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ericsson emphasized that the his F1 experience does not necessarily give him any type of advantage in an IndyCar.

“I think for me I was here a couple months ago in F1 doing the race in ’18. I had all my reference points and then I did the first run and realized that didn’t really work,” Ericsson explained to NBC Sports.com “So I don’t know that the experience — it’s good to know the track, but then the Indy cars are very different cars to the F1 (car) so you have to sort of drive it quite differently and in the end, I think it didn’t really help the maximum amount in my opinion.

“The problem is we had two days of testing already in IndyCar. If we had come here straightaway without any testing it would be an advantage of one hundredth approximate. But now, if you don’t get the track in two days, I don’t think you would be in IndyCar.

“I don’t think it’s a big advantage now going into the weekend.”

But every little bit helps and if all of those little “bits” of information are added up, previous experience can provide a benefit in the race.

“For sure there’s things I can bring from my experience there that helps in INDYCAR, but the Indy car to drive today is different than the Formula One cars with the power steering and everything,” Ericsson continued. “I think it’s two different cars and what I found here on the test; things that worked in the F1 car didn’t really work in the Indy car. I think both cars of very difficult to be fast in but in different ways.

“For sure my experience in F1, it’s helped me to get into INDYCAR.”

James Hinchcliffe, who has never driven in Formula One, or at COTA, believes he has the best experience of any driver in Austin this weekend.

“I know where the restaurants are, so that’s cool,” Hinchcliffe said.