Sunday, September 18, 2016

Morning Warm-Up: Sonoma 2016

Simon Pagenaud is a step closer to hoisting the Astor Cup
Simon Pagenaud started his potential coronation weekend with a valuable pole position. The Frenchman took the top spot and one championship point with his final lap of the qualifying session, a 76.2565-second lap. He set the Sonoma track record in the first round of qualifying with a lap at 76.2530 seconds. This was Pagenaud's seventh pole position of the season and ninth of his career. This is the 23rd time a driver has won at least seven pole positions in a season. He has won from three of his six pole positions this season entering Sonoma. The last driver to win four races from pole position in a season was Will Power in 2011. Joining Pagenaud on row two will be his teammate Hélio Castroneves. This is Castroneves' first front row start at Sonoma since 2011. He finished second in that race. He has seven runner-up finishes since his last victory at Belle Isle in 2014.  

Juan Pablo Montoya starts third for the fourth time this season. He won from third on the grid at Phoenix, finished ninth from third at Phoenix and finished third from third in the first Belle Isle race. After leading 100 laps in the first two races of the season, Montoya led 23 laps in last 13 races. He has led in the last two natural terrain road course races. Will Power rounds out the sweep of the top four by Team Penske. After Pagenaud's pole position, Power trails the Frenchman by 44 points. This will be the worst starting position of Power's career at Sonoma. His previous worst starting position at the track was third in 2008 and 2013. He finished 25th in the 2008 race and won in 2013. Power has won three times in his career from fourth in the grid including at Toronto earlier this season. 

Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay round out an all-Honda row three. This was the fifth time this season Graham Rahal made the Fast Six session, the most of any Honda driver. It was Hunter-Reay third time making the session this season. In all previous four appearances by Rahal he ended up finishing in the top ten. This is Rahal's first top five starting position since Pocono last year. This is Hunter-Reay's first top ten starting position since starting fourth at Mid-Ohio. He finished 18th after having a refueling issue and needing to conserve fuel to make the end of the race. Hunter-Reay has finished second the last two years at Sonoma. He finished second in 2014 from tenth on the grid. He has led nine laps in nine starts at Sonoma. 

Scott Dixon just missed out on the final round of qualifying after having to change brakes before the second round of qualifying. The New Zealander and winner of the last two Sonoma races will start seventh. His victory from ninth last year is the furthest back any driver has won from at Sonoma. Alexander Rossi's eighth-place effort in qualifying gave him his best career start on a road/street course. He has started in the top ten in three of the last four races but has only one top ten finish in the previous three races. The only other time Rossi made it to the second round of qualifying was Mid-Ohio where he started 12th and finished 14th. 

Sébastien Bourdais qualified ninth and will start in the top ten for consecutive races for only the second time in 2016. He enters with three consecutive top ten finishes and goes for four consecutive top ten finishes for the first time since 2013 with Dragon Racing. Josef Newgarden rounds out the top ten. He has finished outside the top twenty in three of four Sonoma starts. Mikhail Aleshin and Charlie Kimball will start on row six. Aleshin has finished in the top ten in both his Sonoma starts. Kimball is ninth in the championship, which would match his career-best. He has finished sixth in the last two races. 

Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti both barely missed out on the second round of qualifying and they will start on row seven. Kanaan went from 11th to fourth in last year's race. Andretti was fastest in the final practice session. He matches his best start of the season on a road/street course, which came in the season opener at St. Petersburg. Takuma Sato starts 15th with Carlos Muñoz on his outside in 16th. Sato's average finish in the last three races is 19.667 after finishing fifth and ninth at Toronto and Mid-Ohio in consecutive races and from 20th on the grid in both races. Muñoz has started on row eight or worse in eight of 16 races in 2016. 

Jack Hawksworth and Max Chilton will start on row nine. This is the fourth time the two British drivers have started on the same row. Chilton is coming off his second top ten finish of the season while Hawksworth is still looking for his first top ten of 2016 and will try to avoid being shut out in the top ten column at Sonoma. Hawksworth has finished 15th and 19th in his two Sonoma starts. Chilton makes his Sonoma debut. Spencer Pigot starts 19th for the final race of his rookie season and James Hinchcliffe joins him on row ten. Pigot finished seventh at Mid-Ohio from 19th on the grid. Hinchcliffe had qualified in the top ten in his four previous Sonoma starts. Dale Coyne Racing's Conor Daly and RC Enerson will start on the final row. Daly began the year by starting 21st at St. Petersburg. Enerson won at Sonoma in 2014 driving in U.S. F2000. 

NBCSN's coverage of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma begins at 6:30 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 6:50 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 85 laps.