Scott Dixon wins 2018 IndyCar championship; Hunter-Reay wins last race at Sonoma

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SONOMA, California – Scott Dixon concluded an outstanding season marked by uncanny consistency and a bit of luck when he needed it, capturing his fifth career IndyCar championship in Sunday’s season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma.

While pole sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay earned the race win — the last IndyCar race to be held at Sonoma Raceway for the foreseeable future — Dixon finished second, outdistancing chief championship challenger Alexander Rossi, who finished seventh, running out of fuel coming to the finish line.

Dixon came into the race with a 29-point lead over Rossi, and when the checkered flag fell, he captured the championship over Rossi relatively easy, by 57 points (678 to 621 points). Will Power finished the season third (582 points), followed by Hunter-Reay (566), 2017 champ Josef Newgarden (560), Simon Pagenaud (492), Sebastien Bourdais (425), Graham Rahal (392), Marco Andretti (392) and James Hinchcliffe (391).

“Man, this is so awesome, I can’t believe it that it’s actually happened,” Dixon said after the race to NBCSN. “I don’t know, you always doubt these situations, that it’s never going to happen.

“I can’t thank everyone enough, my wife Emma, the team, my teammate (Ed Jones), everybody involved. This doesn’t come without a lot of hard work. We had a lot of grit, had a lot of things that could have gone wrong today.

“I have to thank the other teams we fought hard with this year, Penske and Andretti, this season. Rossi did a hell of a job all year. He’s been pushing so hard this year. He’s a huge talent and one that is going to win a lot of championships in his career.”

Strategist Mike Hull congratulates Scott Dixon after the latter won the 2018 IndyCar championship.

Dixon becomes only the second driver to capture five Indy car championships and the first to do it in 51 years. The other five-time winner – actually, he went on to win seven titles – is the legendary A.J. Foyt. It’s also the 12th career IndyCar championship for team owner Chip Ganassi.

Rossi gave it everything he could, but he was behind the 8-ball for most of the race, starting with inadvertent contact on Turn 3 of the opening lap, running into the back end of Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti.

The wreck damaged the right front wing of Rossi, as well as caused a flat right tire, forcing him to drive around the entire 12-turn, 2.52-mile track before he was able to pit for service, and he played catch-up from that point on.

“I got a good start and don’t know if he lifted or I misjudged it or whatever, but it is what it is,” Rossi said of his contact with Andretti. “It was going to be a tough day to beat Scott anyways. It’s unfortunate to go out like that.

“It was just two cars going for the same spot. … I wish I could replay that a million more times. At the end of the day, we have to look at 2018 and be pretty happy with it.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing to come away second and the first loser, but we have lots to work on and improve for next year.

“I’m happy about (finishing second in the championship), but I expect a lot out of myself and the people around me. There’s points in the year that I definitely made some mistakes and didn’t have things go our way, so we’ll look to improve upon that and be even better for Year 4 and hopefully come out of the box and lead it the whole way.

“Huge congratulations to Scott. He’s a five-time champion for a reason and it was a pleasure to race him all year, and we’ll try to one-up him in September 2019 (the final race at WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway).”

Rossi also made contact with Jordan King during the first half of the race when they tapped tires, but both drivers were able to continue on.

The rest of the top-5 in the race were Will Power in third, followed by teammate Simon Pagenaud, who won the previous two races at Sonoma, and Marco Andretti.

Hunter-Reay dedicated his win to fellow IndyCar driver Robert Wickens, who was seriously injured in a crash that included Hunter-Reay nearly a month ago at Pocono Raceway. It was also a good birthday present for Hunter-Reay’s wife, Becky.

“Congratulations to Scott Dixon,” Hunter-Reay said. “What can I say? Five-time champ. He’s unreal.”

Sixth through 10th in the race were Sebastien Bourdais, Rossi, 2017 IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden, an impressive IndyCar debut by 2018 Indy Lights champ Patricio O’Ward and Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Ed Jones.

As for other teams, it was a tough day for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Takuma Sato, who won two weeks ago at Portland, saw his hopes of making it two wins in a row go up in smoke as the motor on his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing blew up just 16 laps into the race.

Sato’s teammate, Graham Rahal, brought out a yellow caution flag on Lap 43 when he lost power in his car. His team took the car back to the garage, swapped batteries and returned to the race 15 laps down.

On Lap 50, several drivers were involved in a multi-car spin in the Turn 11 hairpin including James Hinchcliffe and Jordan King. But there was no caution flag thrown as all of the cars involved continued on.

Matheus Leist and Carlos Munoz were both penalized for failure to avoid contact.

We’ll be back with more shortly. Please check back soon.

Notes: Tony Kanaan finished 12th in his 300th consecutive start as an Indy car driver (also the 360th overall start of his career). … Team owner Roger Penske captured the 500th win of his tenure as a multi-faceted motorsport team owner, including IndyCar and NASCAR. Driver Brad Keselowski, who gave Penske his first NASCAR Cup championship in 2011, won Sunday’s race at Las Vegas to make it 500 wins for “the Captain.”

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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.