Scenes like this will be no longer at Sonoma Raceway after Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar says goodbye to Sonoma Raceway today: so long wine, hello lettuce

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SONOMA, California – For the last 14 years, the IndyCar Series loved to race at Sonoma Raceway.

Not only was the racetrack one of the most challenging permanent road courses in the country, it had ambience that most other tracks on the circuit would love to have.

There were the picturesque rolling hills that surrounded the track, and the charming flock of sheep that keep the grass trimmed.

Sheep?

Yes, the track truly employs a herd of a few thousand sheep that “cut” the grass virtually every day – and there’s sure plenty of land to munch upon.

Going to the races at Sonoma also meant there was all the touristy things to do in the City by the Bay, San Francisco, less than an hour south.

And to the north around the town of Napa, there were world-famous wineries that drivers, team members, media and fans alike all loved to visit … and do a bit of tasting, of course.

Sadly, that all comes to an end Sunday. The Grand Prix of Sonoma will make its 14th and final run at the Speedway Motorsports Inc. facility.

Next year, the season-ending IndyCar race shifts to WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway, about 150 miles south in Monterey, California. In a sense, it will be déjà vu of sorts for IndyCar, which returns to Laguna Seca for the first time since 2004, one year before it shifted to Sonoma Raceway.

According to a recent story in the Sacramento Bee, racetrack president and general manager Steve Page said there needed to be a “sustainable business model” to keep – or now, perhaps some day return – IndyCar to its track.

There have been reports that even though the so-called wine-and-cheese crowd loves to come watch the sleek open-wheel Indy car race cars at Sonoma, the race weekend was a losing economic proposition for the track for at least the last several years.

While several drivers have talked this weekend that they would like to see the series to return to Sonoma one day soon, that won’t be happening for at least the next three years – the length of IndyCar’s new contract with Laguna Seca.

“We wish IndyCar and our friends at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca the very best with their new event,” Page said in a statement when the shift to Laguna Seca was first announced in July.

Forget for now that both tracks will one day host races in the same IndyCar season. Sonoma officials have said it’s “not economically viable” to hold two races at two different tracks per year in Northern California (although some would argue that Laguna Seca is more in Central California).

But here’s where the interesting part comes in: for years, Texas Motor Speedway outright rejected any bid by IndyCar to also hold a race at Circuit of the Americas.

Well, TMS will become bosom buddies with COTA next season, as the latter joins the IndyCar circuit for the first time.

COTA is about 225 miles south of Fort Worth, a bit further than Laguna Seca is from Sonoma. But it will be interesting to see if the crowd base is significantly impacted at either track because there’s now two tracks holding IndyCar races within less than three months of each other.

In theory, there should be enough IndyCar fans to go around so that Sonoma and Laguna Seca could peacefully co-exist and be economically viable.

But that’s an argument to be explored for another day … or three years.

Including Sunday, Sonoma will have held the IndyCar season finale for the last four years, dating back to 2015. In doing so, it’s carried on a great tradition, one that has dated back 13 years, where the series’ championship has been decided in the final race of the season.

In an ironic twist, that 2015 race has been etched in IndyCar history as one of the most remarkable comebacks the sport has ever seen.

Scott Dixon entered the race 47 points behind series leader Juan Pablo Montoya, yet pulled off a stunning rally to not only win the race, but also to earn his fourth IndyCar championship.

Now, four years later, Dixon – if he wins – will bookend the season finale run at Sonoma with his fifth championship. He enters Sunday’s race with a decent – but not comfortable by any means – 29-point lead over Alexander Rossi.

If Dixon wins, he’ll become only the second driver in IndyCar history to win at least five championships (A.J. Foyt has seven).

If Rossi wins, it’ll be fitting that the Nevada City, California native captures the last IndyCar race for at least the foreseeable future – if ever again – at his home track.

When Sunday’s race ends and the new champ is crowned, doused in wine and champagne and proudly trots the championship trophy home, Sonoma Raceway is still going to end the day losing because IndyCar won’t be coming back again any time soon.

If ever again.

Oh yeah, by the way, not to disrespect Laguna, but there’s one other thing to point out that only adds to the loss of Sonoma from the IndyCar schedule.

As afore-mentioned, while IndyCar team members and race fans loved going on wine tasting excursions around Sonoma — where grapes are king — somehow, the top agricultural product of the area around Laguna Seca just doesn’t have the same tourist lure, attraction and cache:

Lettuce.

Well, then again, there is lettuce wine to look forward to, right?

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Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”