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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Christopher Bell wins third straight Chili Bowl

@cbnationals, Twitter
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Christopher Bell passed Kyle Larson on the final lap of the 55-lap A-Feature to win the 33rd Annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals. Bell is only the second driver in event history to win three consecutive Golden Drillers, joining Kevin Swindell who holds the record with four.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be able to win the Chili Bowl,” Bell said at ChiliBowl.com. “To do it three straight times is just unbelievable, but man, I don’t even care about three straight. What about that race? I don’t think I’ve ever really been a part of a last lap race like that, so I’m just glad that thing came out in the end.”

As the white flag waved on his eighth appearance in Saturday’s main event, it seemed Larson was finally going to walk away with his first Golden Driller. This was closest he’s been to the win.

Larson took the lead from Logan Seavey on Lap 21 after a five-lap hot pursuit. Bell moved into second for the first time on Lap 27 but a caution forced him back to third as the field realigned to the last completed lap.

On Lap 33, Bell passed Seavey again for second before another caution reset the field. On the next restart Bell road the rim diving to the hub in Turns 3 and 4. With Larson in sight, Bell started to think about where he was going to put his third trophy.

The final caution flag of the night waved with 20 to go to set up the Bell vs. Larson shootout fans had been waiting for since Larson retired early from the race last year. Larson pulled away on the highline in Turns 1 and 2. He switched to the low in 3 and 4.

With five laps to go Larson hit traffic. That gave Bell the opportunity to close the gap. With two to go Bell was on top of Larson and challenging for the lead. On the final lap Bell passed Larson in Turn 2 as they bumped tires. Glued together through the final pair of turns, they touched twice more before Bell pulled away on the final stretch.

The action wasn’t over, however. Bell wound up on his lid following the win. His donuts got a little out of control and he rolled his midget.

Justin Grant took third by passing Brady Bacon on Lap 36. Bacon followed for fourth with Zach Daum in tow to complete the top five.

Tyler Courtney was the hard charger of the night finishing sixth after starting in 22nd. Brad Sweet and CJ Leary finished seventh and eighth.

Seavey was able to hold onto third until late in the race but ultimately the pole sitter who led the first 20 laps faded to ninth.

Tanner Thorson rounded out the top ten.

Friday’s Main Event

1. Christopher Bell
2. Kyle Larson
3. Justin Grant
4. Brady Bacon
5. Zach Daum
6. Tyler Courtney
7. Brad Sweet
8. CJ Leary
9. Logan Seavey
10. Tanner Thorson
11. Danny Stratton
12. Jonathan Beason
13. Tucker Klaasmeyer
14. Colby Copeland
15. Rico Abreu
16. Michael Faccinto
17. Chad Boat
18. David Gravel
19. Cole Bodine
20. Robert Dalby
21. Jake Neuman
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
23. Shane Golobic
24. Sean McClelland