Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Five: Laguna Seca, Aragón, Spa, Sportsland SUGO, Loudon

IndyCar season is over and we are back to the annual autumnal tradition of searching the globe for motorsports and touching on many different stories lines from many different disciplines. This weekend is the weekend of penultimate rounds. Three series are down to two rounds to go while another series is down to the penultimate round of this segment of the season and another has a penultimate round on a continent.

Laguna Seca
IMSA has its penultimate round of the 2017 season and three of the classes will race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Two championships could be locked up this weekend.

The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac of Jordan Taylor and Ricky Taylor lead the Prototype championship with 258 points and the American duo can clinch the championship with a second place finish. The Taylor brothers won the first five races of the season and finished second at the most recent race at Road America. Jordan won at the track in Grand-Am in 2013 with Max Angelelli as his co-driver.

Twenty-six points back is the #5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac of Christian Fittipaldi and João Barbosa and its teammates and defending champions the #31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran are a further five points back. The #85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca of Misha Goikhberg and Stephen Simpson are fourth on 227 points.

Extreme Speed Motorsports won the most recent round at Road America with Johannes van Overbeek and Pipo Derani in the #22 Nissan. Van Overbeek won at Laguna Seca two years ago. Scott Sharp and Ryan Dalziel have finished on the podium in the last two races. VisitFlorida Racing won at Laguna Seca two years ago and Marc Goossens and Renger van der Zande will be in the #90 Ligier. Van der Zande won at Laguna Seca in the PC/GTD race in 2015. Jose Gutiérrez and Olivier Pla are back in the #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier.

Jan Magnussen and Antonio García need a little more help to clinch the GTLM championship. The #3 Corvette has 274 points and it has to win and have the #25 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing BMW of Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims to finish third without picking up pole position or worse.  Magnussen and García won at Laguna Seca in 2014. RLLR BMW won in GTLM in 2015. The #3 Corvette has won three races this season including the most recent round at VIR. Auberlen and Sims have two victories this season.

The #66 Ford of Joey Hand and Dirk Müller and #67 Ford of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook are tied for third and each are a point behind the #25 BMW. Hand and Müller have two victories this season while Briscoe and Westbrook, last year's winner in GTLM at Laguna Seca, have the most podium finishes in GTLM this season with five but they have yet to win with the duo having three runner-up finishes, including the most recent race at VIR.

Porsche is looking for its first GTLM victory at Laguna Seca. The #911 Porsche of Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner won at Lime Rock Park in July. Gianmaria Bruni and Laurens Vanthoor in the #912 Porsche and the Italian-Belgian duo finished second in two of the previous three races. John Edwards won at Laguna Seca in 2014 in GTLM and he and Martin Tomczyk are looking for their first victory of the season in #24 BMW. Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner won the only other IMSA round in California at Long Beach in April in the #4 Corvette. The #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari returns for its sixth race of the season with Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander. The team has finished third-place in three of its five starts this season.

Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan are looking their second consecutive GTD championship and the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari leads the championship with 282 points to 269 points held by Jeroen Bleekemolen of the #33 Riley Motorsports - Team AMG Mercedes. Nielsen and Balzan have not won a race this season but had six consecutive podium finishes including four runner-up finishes. Bleekemolen has won twice this season. Jens Klingmann is 30 points back in the #96 Turner Motorsport BMW and he has finished first and second in the last two races. The #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow sit in fourth on 248 points.

The IMSA race takes place at 5:00 p.m. ET on Sunday September 24th.

Ten riders are alive for the MotoGP championship as the series heads to Motoland Aragón, the penultimate European round of the season and final round before the series heads on its three-week Asia-Pacific tour.

Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso are tied for the championship lead on 199 points. Both riders have four victories but Márquez has three runner-up finishes to Dovizioso's one runner-up finish. Márquez won last year at Aragón, his third at the track, while Dovizioso's best finish at the track was third in 2012. Yamaha rider Maverick Viñales trails the tied duo by 16 points. Viñales won three of the first five races but has only three podium finishes since then. He won in Moto2 at the track in 2014 and he finished fourth in last year's MotoGP race.

Valentino Rossi will try to compete this weekend after breaking his leg in training and caused him to miss the Misano round. He has 157 points and is fourth in the championship. Rossi has never won at Aragón. Yamaha's World Superbike rider Michael van der Mark is on standby to replace Rossi. Dani Pedrosa is seven points behind Rossi. He won the 2012 race at Aragón. Tech3 Yamaha rider Johann Zarco sits on 110 points, 15 points clear of Danilo Petrucci, who finished second at Misano. Cal Crutchlow sits on 92 points; two ahead of Jorge Lorenzo and Jonas Folger rounds out the top ten on 84 points.

The Aragón Grand Prix will be at 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday September 24th.

The European Le Mans Series has its penultimate round of the season at Spa-Francorchamps for the second consecutive season.

The #22 G-Drive Racing Oreca leads the LMP2 championship with 80 points. Memo Rojas and Léo Roussel have contested every race this season in the #22 Oreca and won at Monza and finished second in the other three races. Ryō Hirakawa returns to the #22 Oreca after missing the last two rounds. The #32 United Autosport Ligier of Felipe Albuquerque, Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer have won two of the four races this season but trails the #22 Oreca by 12 points. The #39 Graff Racing Oreca of James Allen and Richard Bradley trails the #22 Oreca by 31 points after consecutive third-place finishes. Gustavo Yacamán returns for his third consecutive race in the #39 Oreca.

In LMP3, the #2 United Autosport Ligier of Sean Rayhall and John Falb leads the championship after two victories and a second place finish with 70 points. Twelve points back is the all-French line-up in the #18 M.Racing - YMR Ligier of Alexandre Cougnard, Antoine Jung and Romano Ricci, which has yet to win this season but has three consecutive podium finishes. Another all-French line-up is third in the championship. The #17 Ultimate Ligier of François Hériau, Jean-Baptiste Lahaye and Matthieu Lahaye sit on 53 points. Giorgio Mondini and Davide Uboldi won at Red Bull Ring in the #11 Eurointernational Ligier and are fourth in the championship on 47 points.

The #90 TF Sport Aston Martin has finished on the podium in all four races, including a victory in the season opener at Silverstone. With those results, Euan Hankey, Nicki Thiim and Salih Yoluc lead the GTE championship with 77 points. JMW Motorsport won at Monza and has three consecutive podium finishes and sits nine points back of the #90 Aston Martin. Jody Fannin and Robert Smith are back in the #66 Ferrari and Will Stevens joins the duo for Spa-Francorchamps. The #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Aaron Scott have won the last two rounds and they are 13 points back.

The 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps will take place at 6:00 a.m. ET on Sunday September 24th.

Sportsland SUGO
The Super Formula Championship heads to its penultimate round of the season and 17 drivers are still alive for the title.

The 2015 champion Hiroshi Ishiura leads the championship with 30.5 points and he is 4.5 points clear of Red Bull development driver Pierre Gasly. Gasly has won the last two races at Motegi and Autopolis while Ishiura won the race prior to that at Fuji. Six points off Ishiura and fresh off three consecutive podium finishes is Felix Rosenqvist.

André Lotterer trails Ishiura by 10.5 points in fourth in the championship after a victory in Okayama. Kazuki Nakajima has not stood on the podium since he won the season opener at Suzuka. He is 14.5 points back of Ishiura. Yuhi Sekiguchi split the Okayama doubleheader with Lotterer and he is a point behind Nakajima. Kamui Kobayashi finished second two rounds ago at Motegi and he is still looking for his first career Super Formula victory. He has 14.5 points. Defending Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto sits eighth in the championship on 11 points with his only podium finish being third in the season opener at Suzuka.

Gasly could become the first driver to win three consecutive Super Formula races since Lotterer won the final three races of the 2011 season at Sportsland SUGO and sweeping a doubleheader at Motegi. Lotterer won the title that season and he is the most recent European champion in the series. That was also the last time the Sportsland SUGO winner has gone on to win the championship.

For the final time, New Hampshire International Speedway hosts a NASCAR Chase race and it is the second of three races that makes up the first round of this year's Chase.

Martin Truex, Jr. has assured himself a spot in the second round after his victory at Chicagoland. He also has the most points on 2,102 points. The New Jerseyan has never won at Loudon in the Cup series but he matched his career-best finish of third in July after starting on pole position. He has led over 100 laps in the last three Loudon races.

Kyle Larson is second in the championship and 49 points above the drop zone. Should he increase his gap to 13th by 12 points this weekend he will assure himself a spot in the second round based on points. Seven points behind Larson is Kevin Harvick, who won last year's Chase race at Loudon. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are tied on 2,061 points, 35 points to the good. Keselowski has completed 99% of the laps in his 16 Loudon starts. Denny Hamlin is three points behind the Keselowski-Busch tie. Hamlin won at Loudon in June and won the Chase race there in 2012. The last driver to sweep the Loudon Cup races as Kurt Busch in 2004.

In seventh on 2,046 points is Jimmie Johnson. Johnson has not had a top five finish since his victory at Dover in June. All three of his top five finishes this season were victories. Johnson has never won the Loudon Chase race. He won at Loudon in September 2003 the year prior to the introduction of the Chase. Two points behind Johnson is his teammate Chase Elliott after being penalized 15 points for improper modifications at Chicagoland. He picked up his career-best Loudon finish with an 11th-place finish in June. Matt Kenseth has won two of the last four Loudon Chase races and he is on 2,039 points, five ahead of Ryan Blaney. Jamie McMurray is 11th on 2,031 points.

Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch are tied for the final spot in the second round. Each driver has 2,026 points after Dillon finished 16th at Chicagoland and Busch finished 19th. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is four points on the outside with Kasey Kahne another point back and Ryan Newman is the bottom of the 16 drivers on 2,019 points.

The NASCAR Cup race will be at 2:15 p.m. ET on Sunday September 24th.

Over or Under?
1. Over or Under: 1.5 non-Cadillacs on the Prototype podium?
2. Over or Under: 6.5 Spanish riders in the points at Aragon?
3. Over or Under: 1.5 American teams that score a podium finish at Spa-Francorchamps?
4. Over or Under: 2.5 retirements at Sportsland SUGO?
5. Over or Under: 2.5 non-stage ending cautions before the start of the final stage of the race?

1. A GTD team gets its first podium finish of the season.
2. Valentino Rossi scores fewer than 11 points at Aragón.
3. Both the #22 G-Drive Racing Oreca and the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin do not finish on their respective class podiums.
4. Felix Rosenqvist gets his first career Super Formula victory.
5. Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick finish in the top five but not both.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: AJ Foyt Racing's 2017 Season

We are back for our annual IndyCar team reviews and once again we start with the bottom and once again we start with A.J. Foyt Racing, which split it operation between Houston, Texas and Indianapolis, Indiana this season.

It was a step down for Carlos Muñoz but good considering his situation
Carlos Muñoz
The Carlos Muñoz-era at A.J. Foyt Racing could not have started in a more A.J. Foyt Racing-esque way. The Colombian qualified 11th for his first race with the team, the third best Chevrolet on the grid with Will Power on pole position and Josef Newgarden starting fourth. However, Muñoz would be collateral damage when Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal got together in turn two and the innocent bystander Muñoz would call it a day after 32 laps because of the damage from that incident. He would recover nicely at Long Beach with a seventh place finish but followed that up with a 17th at Barber and tenth at Phoenix in a race that saw five cars taken out in the first turn of the race.

Muñoz has a good history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but that would not save him in 2017. He finished 15th in the road course race and started a career-worst 24th for the Indianapolis 500. However, Muñoz was on the right side of attrition and while Honda engines expired and other cars had accidents, Muñoz keep it on the road and finished tenth, his fourth top ten finish in five Indianapolis 500 starts. He closed out the first half of the season with finishes of 14th and 11th at Belle Isle and being caught up in the lap 152 accident at Texas.

The second half of the season started with another near top ten with an 11th at Road America, a retirement after brushing the wall at Iowa and two underwhelming runs at Toronto and Mid-Ohio with finishes of 15th and 18th respectively. Muñoz did turn it around for the final two oval races with a finish of tenth at Pocono and a ninth-place finish at Gateway, a race where he ran in the top ten all race. He made it three consecutive top ten finishes with a tenth at Watkins Glen but he could not make it four consecutive to close out the season, as he finished 15th at Sonoma.

Carlos Muñoz's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 16th (328 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 6
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 17.176
Average Finish: 13.588

It was a slow start for Conor Daly but he finished on a high note
Conor Daly
The American's first season with A.J. Foyt Racing failed to get going. He finished a lap down in the first two races with 15th at St. Petersburg and 16th at Long Beach, with a spin prior to the start at Long Beach adding insult to injury. He finished on the lead lap at Barber but was 18th, over 50 seconds behind race winner Josef Newgarden. Gearbox issues plagued his race at Phoenix but he finish the race, albeit 70 laps down.

Things didn't get better at Indianapolis. Pit strategy had Daly in the top ten in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis at one point but he fell back and stalling on the second pit stop cost him any shot at a top ten and he had to settle for 17th. Daly made an ambitious move to go to the outside and make it three-wide into turn three in the Indianapolis 500 and it ended with him in the wall and out of the race after 65 laps. A mechanical failure after 25 laps in the first Belle Isle race made it back-to-back retirements for Daly and he was running in the top ten until the final restart after contact with Hélio Castroneves dropped him from ninth to 12th. Daly didn't have the most competitive car at Texas but he was one of the last cars standing and despite being caught in the final accident of the night, he picked up a career-best oval finish in seventh.

The results remained rocky as IndyCar entered the summer portion of the season. He struggled to a 15th place finish at Road America, retired after brushing the wall at Iowa and was never a factor at Toronto. Mid-Ohio was the first solid weekend of the season for Daly as he started 11th and finished 10th. He completed all 200 laps at Pocono, his first career lead lap finish on oval. Daly kept up his good oval form at Gateway, driving from 11th to fifth and being competitive all race. He had another competitive day at Watkins Glen but fell short of a top ten by finishing 11th. He ended strong with a top ten finish at Sonoma and he led three laps in the process during a pit cycle.

Conor Daly's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 18th (305 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 4
Laps Led: 3
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 17.0
Average Finish: 14.882

I don't think A.J. Foyt Racing should get rid of either of these drivers. I think the team should have known switching to Chevrolet wasn't going to be a walk in the park or quickly improve the results. There were going to be growing pains. Everything was new for this team and worst of all a lot of it the team has to forget because the Chevrolet aero kit is now obsolete.

Muñoz quietly finished in the top ten in four of the six oval races. Daly got a top five at Gateway and picked up three top ten finishes in the final six races and both drivers had a handful of near top tens. The issue was when A.J. Foyt Racing was off in 2017 the team was way off and the team couldn't dig itself out of the hole by using a different strategy. The one positive for this team is neither driver crashed a bunch of cars. Both their accidents at Texas were out of their control and both their Iowa accidents only bent suspension piece that led to their retirements. I think that is a plus for A.J. Foyt Racing when you consider the last few seasons.

The rumor out there is Foyt might bring in Tony Kanaan but I think that is wishing for a short-term gain but it will only likely be a long-term loss. Both Muñoz and Daly are 25 years old and both drivers turn 26 years old over the winter. Kanaan turns 43 years old on New Year's Eve and while he may have been second fiddle at Chip Ganassi Racing, his results were down from last year. Hiring Kanaan would be hoping to capture lightning in the bottle but it likely won't strike again. Foyt could probably keep Muñoz and Daly for the next four years and build on these two. You aren't getting four solid years out of Kanaan.

If this was last year I would say bring Kanaan in because you had Takuma Sato for four years and Jack Hawksworth for two year and had one victory at Long Beach and a second at São Paulo to show for it but after cleaning house you need to give the pieces you brought in a leash longer than a year to expect to yield any kind of results especially when the team itself switched manufactures. This is a time where A.J. Foyt Racing has to show patience. Unless the team can figure out a way to expand to a third car and add Kanaan to Muñoz and Daly, it should let the seeds planted in 2017 have a chance to sprout in 2018.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: 2017 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited

Josef Newgarden won the IndyCar championship with his teammate Simon Pagenaud won the season finale from Sonoma. Formula One had its first wet night race and it saw three of the top four taken out in the first corner. Another American took a championship at Sonoma. There was an endurance race in Australia. There was an endurance race in Austin. The World Superbikes champion will be British for the third consecutive season. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

2017 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited
The season is complete. Now is the time to see what I got wrong and how far off I was and what I got right.

1. Penske Repeats as Champion
Correct! Team Penske got its 15th championship at the hands of Josef Newgarden. I felt at the start of the season that Newgarden could do it despite concerns of him having a similar first year Penske slump like Simon Pagenaud but I thought Penske wasn't going to allow that to happen a second time. Newgarden was destined to be champion this season. Repeating is hard so that cancelled out Pagenaud and Hélio Castroneves is good but doesn't have that ability to grab a championship and run with it. That left Newgarden and Will Power and the one thing on Newgarden's side was he finished seventh and fourth the previous two years in the championship driving for CFH Racing/Ed Carpenter Racing. If he could do that with a small two-car operation, what could he at Team Penske? He already had the skill. He needed that little extra support.

2. Carlos Muñoz Will Have a Better Average Finish Than Conor Daly
Correct! Muñoz finished with an average finish of 13.588 to Daly's average finish of 14.882. It wasn't the greatest season for A.J. Foyt Racing. The team switched to Chevrolet for this season and the results never came. The team never challenged for a victory and the team's only good outing was Gateway where Daly finished fifth and Muñoz finished ninth. The team could be shaking up the driver lineup again and I think that is unfortunate. Muñoz is a quality driver and he did the best he could with the equipment he had. Daly is with his third different team in three years and this was only his second full-time season. Both should return in 2018 but it appears one will be shown the door if not both drivers.

3. Dale Coyne Racing Will Get One Podium That Wasn't Because of Going Off Strategy
Correct! And it happened to be race one of the season. Did Sébastien Bourdais benefit from stopping before a caution at St. Petersburg? Sure but it was during the pit stop cycle and he had to restart second behind Simon Pagenaud and not only did he pass his fellow countryman and the defending IndyCar champion but he left him in the dust and won by over ten seconds.

4. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan End Winless Droughts
Wrong! Neither driver won in 2017 and Hunter-Reay having victories slip through his fingers due to mechanical failures at Long Beach and Indianapolis are not some type of consolation prize. Kanaan's best finish came in a race where he should have been disqualified.

5. JR Hildebrand Sets Career-Highs for Top Fives and Top Tens
Wrong! Hildebrand set career-highs in neither category but he did set a career-high in podium finishes as he finished third at Phoenix and second at Iowa. Unfortunately, those results were not good enough and Hildebrand finds himself out of a ride again.

6. Graham Rahal Increases His Amount of Top Ten Finishes but not Top Five Finishes
Correct! Last year, all eight of Rahal's top ten finishes were top five finishes. This year, Rahal had six top five finishes and 12 top ten finishes. It was a rough start to the season for Rahal and he might have added top ten finishes at St. Petersburg and Indianapolis had it not been for contact with Charlie Kimball and a flat tire in the respective races. Rahal came on strong in the second half of the season and he became the first driver to win multiple races this season when he swept the Belle Isle doubleheader.

7. James Hinchcliffe Scores His Best Finish in the Championship
Wrong! The Canadian finished 13th in the championship after retiring from the final IndyCar race of the season because of a gearbox issue and being scored in 22nd. The season started really well for Hinchcliffe with a victory at Long Beach and three top ten finishes from the first three races. However, he would only score four top tens in the next 14 races and two third-place finishes, an eighth and a tenth were not going to be enough to get him to finish seventh in the championship. Last year, he finished 13th in the championship and probably didn't deserve it. This year, he kind of was the 13th best driver in IndyCar.

8. Alex Tagliani Does Not Lead a Lap in the Indianapolis 500
Correct! And Tagliani didn't even have a ride for the Indianapolis 500 despite leading at least one lap for six consecutive Indianapolis 500s and could have matched the record for most consecutive Indianapolis 500s having led a lap. It appears Tagliani's time in IndyCar is over.

9. There Will Be More Lead Changes at all Short Oval Races From the Previous Race at the Tracks
Correct! Phoenix was up from two lead changes to four, Iowa was up from 11 lead changes to 12 and Gateway was up from five lead changes to 11. While I got this one correct I think it should be asked are lead changes are misleading? Phoenix had double the lead changes from 2016 but the race wasn't any better. Iowa had one more lead change and it was a fairly good race. Gateway had more than double the lead changes from the 2003 race but it was saved from being a dull race thanks to Josef Newgarden's audacious race-winning move on Simon Pagenaud into turn one. When it comes to lead changes we need two separate columns, one for lead changes that occur during a pit cycle and one for lead changes that occur on the racetrack with second place passing first place. The main thing for 2018 is Phoenix and Gateway need to see improved races in hopes for long-term futures on the IndyCar schedule. We all hope the universal aero kit will be enough but it could be too late to save Phoenix. Two poor races could prove to be one too many.

10. At Least Two Drivers Improve by at Least Five Positions in the Championship
Correct! Takuma Sato went from 17th in 2016 to eighth this year and Max Chilton went from 19th to 11th. Besides those two, Alexander Rossi improved four positions from 11th to seventh and if it wasn't for his engine issues at Sonoma he might have been a third driver to improve by five championship positions from 2016. You could also consider J.R. Hildebrand as a driver who improved more at least five positions as he went from 23rd in 2016 after only running two races to 15th as a full-time driver.

11. A Ridiculous Rumor About a Driver Out of IndyCar at Least Three Years is Published on Either or
Correct! Jeff Simmons was rumored for an Indianapolis 500 one-off this May and he hasn't been in a car since 2008. The ride never materialized. And then there was the recent news that Tristan Gommendy, who only raced during the 2007 Champ Car season, will have a ride to attempt to qualify for the 2018 Indianapolis 500. What a time to be alive.

12. Jenson Button Will be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway During the Month of May
Wrong! Unless he was incognito on Carb Day, the 2009 World Drivers' Champion was not at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the month of May. But we had a two-time world drivers' champion not only show up for a day during the month of May but had his own test day that drew over two million viewers on YouTube from around the world and then he ran a full week of practice, qualified fifth, skipped the Monaco Grand Prix and led 27 laps before his engine failed ironically with 21 laps to go. What I am saying is Fernando Alonso was not a bad plan B.

Eight for 12. Not going to complain.

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Josef Newgarden but did you know...

Patrick Long won the Pirelli World Challenge Overall GT Championship and the PWC GT Sprint Championship with finishes of third and second at Sonoma.

The #17 Team WRT Audi of Robin Frijns and Stuart Leonard won the Blancpain Sprint Series championship after winning the championship race from Nürburgring. The #84 Mercedes-AMG Team HTP Motorsports Mercedes of Maximilian Bukh and Franck Perera won the qualifying race.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Simon Pagenaud and what happened at the Nürburgring but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Singapore Grand Prix.

The #2 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber won the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas, their fourth consecutive victory. The #36 Signatech Alpine of Nicolas Lapierre, Gustavo Menezes and André Negrão won in LMP2. The #51 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi won in GTE-Pro. The #95 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda won in GTE-Am.

Michael Cooper swept the Pirelli World Challenge GT races from Sonoma. Ian James and Lawson Aschenbach split the GTS races.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race from Chicagoland. Justin Allgaier won the Grand National Series race. Johnny Sauter won the Truck race.

The #6 Prodive Racing Australia Ford of Cameron Waters and Richie Stanaway won the Sandown 500, each drivers first career victory.

Jonathan Rea swept the World Superbike races from Portimão. Kenan Sofuoglu won the World Supersport race, his fifth victory of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP has its final European round of the season at Aragón.
NASCAR has one final autumn trip to New Hampshire.
DTM has its penultimate round of the season at Red Bull Ring.
European Le Mans Series has its penultimate round of the season at Spa-Francorchamps.
IMSA has its penultimate round of the season at Laguna Seca.
Super Formula has its penultimate round of the season at Sportsland SUGO.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

First Impressions: Sonoma 2017

1. I am never sure where to start the final First Impressions of a season. Do I start with the race winner or do I start with the champion? I will start with the champion. About ten years ago I first heard about Josef Newgarden and he was one of the next American Formula One hopeful. We had Scott Speed but we had lost the United States Grand Prix and Newgarden was in that next crop of American youngsters in Europe along with Alexander Rossi and Jonathan Summerton.

Newgarden won two of the three races at first round of the 2009 Formula Palmer Audi season. I think he was the last call on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain after that or maybe it was after he won the Team USA Scholarship that took him to the Formula Ford Festival in 2008 or maybe it was after he finished second in the British Formula Ford championship in 2009. Either way, I was hopeful because it was during a time where we kept seeing younger and younger drivers getting a shot at Formula One. First was Sebastian Vettel, then Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari and I believed that one of those three Americans was bound to make it in Europe.

That didn't happen but Newgarden's career didn't flame out. He came home to the United States, got with the right Indy Lights team in Sam Schmidt Motorsports and in year one he won the championship. Newgarden entered IndyCar with the DW12 chassis and he was the first American to get to IndyCar with the recently created Road to Indy scholarship. We knew the rookie was fighting uphill. Sarah Fisher took a chance on him as she took a chance in turning her team into a full-time operation. She didn't even have an engine manufacture when she signed Newgarden but she was fortunate to get a Honda instead of a Lotus. How different would things be if Newgarden and Fisher had to run Lotus in 2012?

The first year was difficult. He didn't finish in the top ten once that rookie season. He should have finished on the podium at Toronto. Ironically, a block from Simon Pagenaud is what cost him that moment of glory. Things got much better in his sophomore season. He was fighting Takuma Sato for the win at São Paulo but an aggressive drive by Sato and borderline blocking dropped him to fifth in the final results. He would pick up his first career podium at Baltimore by finishing second to Pagenaud. Year three was a tick better and he started to find results on ovals. He had a late charge at Iowa to finish second and he had a massive drive at Milwaukee after a late pit stop put him a lap down only to un-lap himself on the track and finish fifth.

The 2015 season is when Newgarden got it. He won the fourth race of the season at Barber, his first career victory. He won again at Toronto, leading a 1-2 for CFH Racing ahead of Luca Filippi. He got his first career pole position at Milwaukee and finished fifth. He finished second again at Iowa and his second place finish at Pocono kept him alive for the championship entering the 2015 season finale at Sonoma but a mechanical issue took him out of contention early.

Newgarden didn't have a shot at the title last year entering Sonoma but he improved. He finished third at Barber and third in the Indianapolis 500. He broken his clavicle and wrist at Texas and was back for the next race at Road America and finished eighth. He won the race after that at Iowa. He finished fourth at Pocono, second at Watkins Glen and sixth at Sonoma to finish fourth in the championship.

After seeing Simon Pagenaud struggle in year one at Team Penske the questions were asked whether Newgarden would face the same fate in his first year with the team. Roger Penske made sure that wouldn't happen. He was given Penske's second-in-command in Tim Cindric to lead him from the pit stand. We won in his third start for the team at Barber; he took runner-up finishes at Belle Isle and Road America. He won again at Toronto, he dominated at Mid-Ohio, he finished second again at Pocono and he made a grab the bull by the horns move at Gateway to take the victory from his teammate Pagenaud, the man who cost him his first podium finish at Toronto in 2012.

After he slid into the pit wall on exit at Watkins Glen you had to ask whether or not the pressure was starting to break the young man. This weekend confirmed he never felt it. He won pole position and didn't let his teammates, two champions and a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, scare him. He ran his race. He listened to Cindric and while he didn't win the race, he was always at the front today and second was good enough.

Newgarden has improved on his championship finish every year he has been in IndyCar. From 23rd to 14th to 13th to 7th to fourth to champion. He has nowhere else to go. Yes, I am sure he wants to win an Indianapolis 500 or two or three but the man has never stopped climbing. He is 26 years old, his 27th birthday is December 22nd and this was his 100th IndyCar start. What will he do in the next 100? Or the next 200? The last American to win a IndyCar championship with Team Penske was racing in NASCAR two years later. I am not sure this one is going anywhere.

2. Simon Pagenaud won the race, his second of the season and he became the second driver to complete every lap in a season. He finishes second in the championship to Newgarden by 13 points. Pagenaud knew he needed to take a risk if he wanted to win the championship. He recreated Michael Schumacher's 2004 French Grand Prix where the German pulled off a four-stop strategy and won the race. This wasn't as thrilling as that race. Schumacher barely got out ahead of Fernando Alonso, but we rarely see four-stop strategies win road/street course races in IndyCar.

Ninety-nine out of 100 IndyCar seasons, Pagenaud would be champion. Two victories, seven podium finishes, 13 top five finishes and 15 top ten finishes from 17 races on top of every lap completed. This is one of the greatest seasons in IndyCar history and it is only good enough for second in the championship. While we celebrate Newgarden, we must recognize Pagenaud. He is methodical and he is going to win another championship before he is done with IndyCar.

3. Will Power made it a 1-2-3 finish for Team Penske in this race, this first sweep of the podium for Team Penske since Sonoma in 2011. He won three races this season, the second-most to Newgarden but he finished outside the top ten in four of the first six races and he had three more finishes outside the top fifteen after that. The championship was out of reach from Power from the start but he isn't going anywhere and he isn't going to spot his teammates that many points in 2018.

4. Scott Dixon couldn't work his magic today and he finished fourth in the race and third in the championship. He only won one race this year, the fewest since 2005 when he was stuck with a crappy Toyota engine. The man has 41 victories. He ends 2017 fourth all-time in victories, one off from tying Michael Andretti for third.

This year proves how special Dixon is. He finished third in the championship with two Penske drivers ahead of him and two Penske drivers behind him. He had seven podium finishes, only Newgarden had more. He had ten top five finishes, tied with Newgarden and only Pagenaud had more. He had 16 top ten finishes from 17 races. If he doesn't run into Jay Howard and take flight in the Indianapolis 500 he probably would have won this championship. He finished 21 points behind Newgarden.

Dixon is 37 years old. He doesn't look a day over 28 years old. Dixon is on the back nine. The clubhouse isn't in sight but it is getting bigger from this point on. Appreciate Scott Dixon while we still have him.

5. Hélio Castroneves finished fifth in the race and fourth in the championship. We don't know if this will be his final race as a full-time driver. I don't think Roger Penske even knows if this was Castroneves' final race as a full-time driver. Like Dixon, Castroneves had 16 top ten finishes from 17 races but unlike Dixon, I don't think if his tire doesn't fail at Texas he would have been champion. Castroneves has been really good but greatness has eluded him. He does have three Indianapolis 500 victories but he has five victories from the last six seasons and yet he has finished in the top five in the championship eight of the last nine seasons. He isn't great but he is better than really good. I am not sure a 21st season will be the charm if the first 20 weren't good enough.

6. Graham Rahal finished sixth in the race and finished sixth in the championship. A rough start to the season kept him from finishing in the top five in the championship for a third consecutive season but the man won twice and he had seven top finishes and 12 top ten finishes from 17 races. Rahal did all this as a single-car team and that has been the case the last three seasons. It appears he will be gaining a teammate in 2018. Will take get him back into the title contention or could it be a hurdle? He is focused every week and he doesn't have the lost weekends he had for a good three or four seasons early in his career. I think he will be alright.

7. Marco Andretti finished seventh in this race and for the second time this season Andretti was the top finisher in a race for Andretti Autosport. He missed out on the top ten in the championship by 15 points. It wasn't a great year but it was better than last year and Andretti had a handful of races end because of mechanical failures, most notably Long Beach and he had to start two laps down at Barber. I wonder if he will do better with the lower downforce universal aero kit next season. He finished fifth in the 2013 championship in the original DW12 aero kit, which had less downforce than these aero kits. He may surprise many next year.

8. Ryan Hunter-Reay's season started like hell. He had an engine failure cost him victory at Long Beach and maybe Indianapolis as well. The man couldn't catch a break. However, summer came and a third at Iowa was followed by three more top ten finishes and a third at Watkins Glen was followed by an eight-place finish today. He went from 15th in the championship after Road America to ninth in the final standings. He hasn't won in the last two seasons but he isn't fading. Expect him to get back on top in 2018.

9. Sébastien Bourdais finished ninth in what was a bittersweet season. He won at St. Petersburg and led the championship for three races but he broke his hip in an accident in a car that probably was going to win pole position in the Indianapolis 500 and he missed most of this season only to comeback and pick up two top ten finishes in the final three races. I don't know if Bourdais would have been a championship contender into Sonoma but he would have finished in the top ten of the championship, maybe won another race or two and he might have won the Indianapolis 500. There is no guarantee 2018 will come close to what 2017 could have been.

10. Conor Daly finished tenth and maybe saved his job. He had three top ten finishes in the final six races for a team that was lost all season after switching to Chevrolet in a lame duck season for the aero kits. They were always going to be behind the eight ball. This was year two for him full-time in IndyCar. He deserves a year three.

11. Charlie Kimball finished 11th and he now heads into an uncertain offseason. It appears Ganassi is moving on and cutting some pieces loose and Kimball might be one of them. At least Kimball leaves with the distinction of being the only man to make Chip Ganassi fall off a pit wall.

12. Max Chitlon was a position behind Kimball in the final results and he too appears to be heading out the door with Kimball. They might continue walking together and start something together. Or Chilton might be heading to another series. We should know by Christmas.

13. Spencer Pigot had to make an early pit stop but finished 13th, the first car one lap down. After that, I can't tell you anything else about what Pigot did today. He is now a full-time IndyCar driver and will be in the car Josef Newgarden once occupied. What can he do with it?

14. J.R. Hildebrand finished behind his teammate Pigot in 14th. That sums up his season nicely. Will he get a third chance at IndyCar full-time? I hope so.

15. Carlos Muñoz finished 15th and while Daly beat him in the race, Muñoz finished ahead of the American in majority of the race and he finished ahead of Daly in the championship. Both should stay. Foyt is likely getting rid of one. Bet on Muñoz to draw the short straw.

16. Tony Kanaan had what was likely his worst season in 15 years and he still finished tenth in the championship. Unlike Castroneves, there appears to be a 21st season in Kanaan's future.

17. Zachary Claman DeMelo finished 17th in his IndyCar debut. I don't think you could ask for much more from someone who has maybe four IndyCar tests and three practice sessions under his belt.

18. Jack Harvey finished 18th. I don't know if he will be full-time but he is talented enough to be. He needs time but don't they all?

19. Ed Jones retired after 69 laps. After starting 2017 like a firecracker, he fizzled out. He failed to score a top ten finish in the final seven races and he went seventh in the championship after the first Belle Isle race to 14th. I think his growth was stunned after Bourdais was sidelined. Dale Coyne should have already signed him to a deal for 2018. I think he will be back.

20. It is unfortunate that Takuma Sato's race ended after 62 laps and that he never could overcome a tire puncture early in the race but he finished eighth in the championship. This isn't Sato turning a corner in his career. The man is 40 years old. But it was nice to see him have one respectable season in IndyCar where he rarely put a wheel wrong and consistently started and finished at the front. He deserved eighth in the champion.

21. Alexander Rossi was the top Andretti Autosport driver in the championship in seventh. He had engine issues all race today and the championship long shot was the first to call it a day. He ended the season strong and everybody and it really does seem like everybody has said this weekend that Rossi will be a championship contender in 2018. No pressure.

22. James Hinchcliffe had another season unravel at the end. His last four results were 20th after a retirement, eighth, 21st after a retirement and 22nd after a retirement. He went from eighth in the championship after the first Belle Isle race to 13th in the final standings. That Long Beach victory seems like such a long time ago.

23. We knew what we were getting. Sonoma has been on the IndyCar schedule since 2005 and every race has been crap and outside slight modifications to turn seven and the hairpin, the track is pretty much the same. The DW12 has put on decent races at Barber, Mid-Ohio and even Belle Isle but it has not been able to save Sonoma. I like Sonoma. I loved going out there in 2009 and I wish I could go there again but the on-track product is crap. They got to try something. Run the NASCAR course, run the actual hairpin, do something.

The season finale isn't going anywhere folks. Fontana isn't returning to the schedule. Chicagoland isn't returning to the schedule. The 2018 season will end at Sonoma and that is all the more reason why something needs to be done. Sonoma has been a good place to IndyCar. Not many races go back to 2005 and it is tough to move it when you want date equity but this isn't the race for the season finale and frankly a race like this isn't good enough to be on the calendar at all. Something has to change at Sonoma. It isn't going anywhere and the series mind as well try something different at the track to put on a better race.

24. A couple quick things to end on: It was weird having Leigh Diffey final the last two races. I love Leigh Diffey and he did a great job in these two races but I got used to Kevin Lee in the booth and I hope he gets the microphone full-time. There are a lot of conflicts with the Formula One calendar and Diffey called four races all season while Rick Allen did one or two (I can't remember) and Kevin Lee did at least six races. I think Lee should be NBC's IndyCar voice. There isn't a more qualified guy out there.

25. I don't know how to close. I never want it to end but I like the season ending now. I could go another week or two but IndyCar has it right. Seventeen races over 16 weekends. I want another race or two or three but let's not go too far and ruin a good thing. We get enough to fill us but not stuff us. We are satisfied but we are hungry for a little more. Another season is gone and another one is likely about six months in the distance. There are plenty of rides to fill, a television deal to get done and maybe even a race to add to the schedule. We won't be bored but we won't content.

Morning Warm-Up: Sonoma 2017

Josef Newgarden held serve on Saturday. Can he hoist the Astor Cup on Sunday?
Josef Newgarden picked up his first pole position of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a time of 75.5205 seconds in the final round of qualifying from Sonoma Raceway, a new track record. His only other pole position came at Milwaukee in 2015. Newgarden led 109 laps that day but fell to ninth while Sébastien Bourdais won the race after leading 118 laps. It is the second consecutive race Newgarden was the top Penske qualifier. The pole-sitter has won five times at Sonoma, including last year's race by Simon Pagenaud. Newgarden could become the first IndyCar champion born in the state of Tennessee. Will Power joins Newgarden on row one and he missed pole position by 0.0351 seconds. This is the first time Power has started second at Sonoma and he has never qualified worse than fourth at the track. Power has not won a race from second on the grid since Edmonton 2011. He did win at Long Beach in 2012 from 12th on the grid after qualifying second but he had to serve a ten-spot grid penalty for an engine change.

Defending IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud will start third after qualifying 0.1151 seconds off Newgarden. This is the third consecutive year Pagenaud has started in the top five at Sonoma. Pagenaud is attempting to become the first driver to win consecutive championships since Dario Franchitti won three consecutive titles from 2009 to 2011. Hélio Castroneves makes it a clean sweep of the top four for Team Penske. This was Castroneves 12th appearance in the Firestone Fast Six in 13 Sonoma races. This is the third time Castroneves has started fourth at Sonoma in his career. Takuma Sato was the top Honda in fifth. Sato led Andretti Autosport as the top qualifier eight times in 2017. This is Sato's seventh consecutive top ten start. Scott Dixon rounded out the Fast Six. Dixon was the only driver to make every Fast Six session during the 2017 season. He started sixth at Sonoma in 2010 and finished second.

Ryan Hunter-Reay missed out on the final round of IndyCar qualifying but he will start seventh, his second consecutive race starting seventh. Hunter-Reay has started seventh twice previously at Sonoma and in both races he finished 18th.  Alexander Rossi qualified eighth and his championship hope needs a prayer. With Newgarden picking up the bonus point for pole position and Newgarden will also likely pick up a point for leading a lap, Rossi needs to win the races and lead the most laps and Newgarden to finish 22nd, dead last, just to have a shot at winning the championship. Graham Rahal starts on the inside of row five. Rahal has completed every lap in eight of his nine Sonoma starts. The one exception was in 2009 when a driveshaft failure ended his race after 30 of 75 laps. Sébastien Bourdais rounded out the top ten and the Frenchman finished tenth in last year's Sonoma race. Bourdais has advanced to the second round of qualifying in his last five road/street course race appearances.

Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan each made the second round of qualifying for the fifth time this season at Sonoma and the former teammates will start on row six. Andretti has finished in the top ten in three of the last four Sonoma races. Kanaan has finished 13th in three of the last four Sonoma races. Andretti has not finished in the top ten in the last four races while Kanaan is coming off the heels of back-to-back retirements. Conor Daly will start 13th. This is the second time Daly has started a race from 13th in his IndyCar career. He started and finished 13th last year at Long Beach. Max Chilton was the first driver to miss the second round of qualifying from group two and he will start 14th. Chilton is 13 points outside the top ten in the championship. Chilton was as high as tenth in the championship after the Indianapolis 500 and Iowa.

Charlie Kimball failed to advance from the first round of qualifying at Sonoma for the first time since 2012 and he will start 15th. Kimball has finished on the lead lap and in the top ten in the last two Sonoma races after having not finished on the lead lap in his first four starts at the track. James Hinchcliffe joins Kimball on row eight. Like Chilton, the Canadian is 13 points outside the top ten in the championship. Hinchcliffe won from 16th on the grid in the rain-shortened race at NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015. Spencer Pigot will start 17th in his final race as the road/street course driver in the #20 Chevrolet. Pigot could finish in the top twenty in the championship despite missing five races. The 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Ed Jones joins Pigot in row nine. Bourdais qualified ahead of Jones in five of the eight races they were teamed for but Jones was the top qualifier for Dale Coyne Racing nine times this season.

Jack Harvey makes his third career IndyCar start from 19th position. He won his only two Indy Lights starts at the track in 2014. Harvey is joined by another Sonoma Indy Lights winner on row ten, as J.R. Hildebrand will start 20th. This will be Hildebrand's final race with Ed Carpenter Racing as Pigot moves to the #21 Chevrolet for 2018. This is the six time in 2017 Hildebrand has started on row ten or worse. Zachary Claman DeMelo makes his IndyCar debut from 21st on the grid. DeMelo is set to be the ninth Quebec-born driver to start an IndyCar race. Of the previous eight Quebec drivers to start an IndyCar race, seven picked up a podium finish in their IndyCar career. The one who did was Claude Bourbonnais. Carlos Muñoz rounds out the grid in 22nd. This is the fifth time Muñoz has started outside the top twenty this season and the 11th start outside the top twenty in his career.

NBCSN's coverage of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma begins at 6:30 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 6:40 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 85 laps.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Track Walk: Sonoma 2017

IndyCar closes out the 2017 season at Sonoma
Sixteen of 17 races in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have been completed and we have seen ten winners from six teams and the record for most different winners in a season could be matched this weekend at Sonoma. On top of all that, the Astor Cup will be awarded to one of six drivers as the 2017 IndyCar champion. Three drivers are going for their first title, two drivers are going for their second and one driver is going for his fifth championship.

Time: Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday September 17th. Green flag will be at 6:40 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN.
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy are in the booth. Kevin Lee, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller are working the pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice- 1:00 p.m. ET (45-minute session).
Second Practice- 5:15 p.m. ET (45-minute session. NBCSN will have live coverage of this session).
Third Practice- 2:00 p.m. ET (45-minute session).
Qualifying- 6:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage of this session).
Warm-Up- 2:30 p.m. ET (30-miunte session).
Race- 6:40 p.m. ET (85 laps)

IndyCar's Hexagonal
With 104 points on the table and a minimum of 16 points being awarded, six drivers have a mathematically shot at taking the Astor Cup this weekend.

Josef Newgarden saw his championship lead shrink to three points after an accident exiting the pit lane at Watkins Glen put him two laps down and dropped him to an 18th place finish, his second-worst finish of the season. Newgarden had seven consecutive top ten finishes before his Watkins Glen result, which included six finishes in one of the top two positions. Sonoma has been a track of feast or famine for Newgarden. While he has finished sixth two of the last three years, three of his five Sonoma starts have resulted in finishes outside the top twenty. This weekend also see Newgarden make his 100th IndyCar start.

Scott Dixon is three points behind the American in a battle where likely the better finisher of the two will come out on top. Dixon has finished second in the last two races, upping his total to seven this season. This is the first time Dixon has had consecutive podium finishes last he won at Phoenix and finished second at Long Beach last year. Dixon has not had three consecutive podium finishes since he won three consecutive races in 2013 at Pocono and swept the Toronto doubleheader. Dixon is tied with Will Power for most victories at Sonoma with three. He has started in the top ten in all 12 of his Sonoma starts.

Hélio Castroneves trails his teammate by 22 points and a victory will likely be enough for the Brazilian to take the championship. Castroneves is tied with Dixon for most top ten finishes this year with each 15 top ten finishes from the 16 races this year. He has finished fourth in the last two races but has only three podium finishes all season. Castroneves has started in the top six in 11 of 12 Sonoma races but he has not finished on the podium at the track since 2011 and his best finish at Sonoma in the DW12-era is sixth. His lone victory at Sonoma came in 2009 from pole position. Last year, Castroneves led seven laps, his first laps led since at Sonoma since his 2009 victory.

Simon Pagenaud won last year's Sonoma race after leading 76 of 85 laps from pole position on his way to clinching the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. This year, Pagenaud enters Sonoma 34 points behind Newgarden. Pagenaud has completed all 500 laps in his six Sonoma starts despite two finishes outside the top ten and he could make history this weekend and become the second driver to complete every lap run in an IndyCar season. Tony Kanaan did it in 2004. He has completed 2,246 laps this season. Pagenaud has led 146 laps this season, 116 of those laps led came at Phoenix. He has only led 15 laps on road/street circuits this season.

Will Power kept his championship hopes alive with a sixth place finish at Watkins Glen on top of Newgarden's misfortune but the Australian is 68 points off Newgarden. Power had six consecutive top ten finishes at Sonoma prior to last year's mechanical issue caused him to finish 20th, eight laps down. Last year was just the second time Power did not lead a lap in Sonoma. Power has led the most laps all-time at Sonoma with 276 laps led. Power has won five pole positions and started no worse than fourth in his eight Sonoma starts. If Power scores the maximum of 104 points, he would need Newgarden to finish 12th or worse, Dixon 11th or worse, Castroneves sixth or worse and Pagenaud third or worse.

Alexander Rossi's Watkins Glen victory on top of Newgarden's accident has kept the American alive for the championship but he needs a Hail Mary to make a championship possible. He needs to score a maximum of 104 points with Newgarden finishing 21st or worse, Dixon 19th or worse, Castroneves tenth or worse and Pagenaud seventh or worse. The only time Newgarden has finished 21st or worse AND Dixon has finished 19th or worse AND Castroneves has finished tenth or worse AND Pagenaud has finished seventh or worse was the second Belle Isle race in 2015 when Pagenaud finished 14th, Castroneves 19th, Dixon 20th and Newgarden 21st.

Final Race Before Uncertain Futures
Sonoma marks the final race before the start of what could be the most hectic IndyCar offseason in recent memory. More seats are open than settled as IndyCar heads into autumn and drivers old and young, American and foreign, champions and back markers are getting ready for a game of musical chairs.

Tony Kanaan's time at Chip Ganassi Racing appears to be ending after four seasons with the team. Kanaan's lone victory with the team was the 2014 season finale at Fontana. In his previous 66 starts at CGR, Kanaan had 12 podium finishes, 20 top five finishes and 41 top ten finishes. Kanaan enters Sonoma ninth in the championship and he has finished seventh, eighth and seventh the last three seasons. Sonoma is the site of Kanaan's only permanent road course victory, which came in 2005. Kanaan is rumored to be moving to A.J. Foyt Racing for 2018.

Max Chilton appears he will be heading out the door with Kanaan when this season ends but he will likely be heading in different directions. Chilton scored his sixth top ten finish of the season with an eighth at Watkins Glen. He started 18th and finished 16th last year in his Sonoma debut. He enters Sonoma 12th in the championship, 13 points outside the top ten. Chilton's future varies from him helping Carlin enter the Verizon IndyCar Series to a move to LMP2 in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Ed Jones might be 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Year but that does not guarantee him a ride on the 2018 grid. The Dale Coyne Racing driver has not finished in the top ten in the last six races. He has only advanced to the second round of qualifying twice this season. He did it at Barber and Road America. This is Jones' first time to Sonoma. It is the fourth track he had no experience at prior to this season. The other three were Texas, Pocono and Gateway. Jones has completed every lap in the last three races. There has been no strong word on where Jones could be in 2018.

J.R. Hildebrand heads to his home race knowing his future will not be at Ed Carpenter Racing. He has not scored a top ten finish on a road or street circuit this season and his only time advancing from round one of qualifying was at Toronto. This will be Hildebrand's first race at Sonoma since he ran with Bryan Herta Autosport in 2013. His best finish at Sonoma is eighth and he has never started better than 15th at the track. He won at Sonoma in Indy Lights in 2009.

Carlos Muñoz's time at A.J. Foyt Racing could be over after one season despite the Colombian having six top ten finishes this season, three of which have come in the last three races. Sonoma has historically been one of Muñoz's worst racetracks. In three starts he has completed 254 out of 255 laps but his best finish is 15th, which came in last year's race.

Charlie Kimball could remain at Chip Ganassi Racing for 2018 but he could also see himself in another outfit next season. Kimball took a step back from 2016. Last year, Kimball entered Sonoma ninth in the championship and he had ten top ten finishes from the first 15 races. He closed out the 2016 season with a ninth place finish in the race and the championship. This year, Kimball has only five top ten finishes but two of those came in the last two races, and he is 17th in the championship, the second-worst of all the drivers who have started every race this season. After finishing 20th or worse in his first four Sonoma starts, Kimball has finished third and ninth the last two years at the track.

Conor Daly is another A.J. Foyt Racing driver uncertain about his future. Daly is 18th in the championship, the lowest driver who has started every race this season. He made his first start at Sonoma last year and his race was over after 36 laps due to an exhaust issue. A.J. Foyt Racing has a total of three top ten finishes at Sonoma with the team's best finish being fourth in 2014 by Takuma Sato.

Spencer Pigot has been promoted to Ed Carpenter Racing's full-time driver in the #21 Chevrolet for 2018. Pigot has three top ten finishes this year, as many as Hildebrand and Carpenter combined. He has yet to make it out of the first round of qualifying in his IndyCar career. Last year, his Sonoma race ended after 35 laps due to a gearbox issue. He currently sits 20th in the championship, 14 points ahead of Sébastien Bourdais.

Can Anyone Different Sip the Red Wine?
Outside of Dan Gurney's win in USAC's lone trip to Sonoma on April 4, 1970, all 12 Sonoma races have been won by Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti Autosport. Team Penske has the most wins at the track with six, Ganassi has four victories and Andretti has won twice but not since 2006.

Graham Rahal could get a different team in the record books at Sonoma. While the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver is not in the championship fight, he is seventh in the championship and only 26 points out of the top five. He has finished in the top five in the championship the last two seasons. Last year, Rahal set career bests for starting position and finishing position at Sonoma as he started fifth and finished second and gave Pagenaud a challenge for the victory.

Rahal will have a new teammate this weekend, as Zachary Claman De Melo will make his IndyCar debut in the #13 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Motorsports. De Melo finished fifth in the Indy Lights championship this year. He won at Road America and stood on the podium for one of the IMS road course races and both Toronto races. He will be the 12th youngest driver to make an IndyCar start at 19 years, four months and 28 days old. If he were to win the race, he would become the second youngest driver to win an IndyCar race. His teammate is the youngest winner in IndyCar history. The last driver to win on debut was Buzz Calkins at Orlando on January 27, 1996.

James Hinchcliffe is the senior Canadian driver on the IndyCar grid and the last time IndyCar was in California, he won the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Five months later, Hinchcliffe finds himself 11th in the championship and having only one top ten finish in the last four races. Hinchcliffe has finished 12th in his last two Sonoma starts with his best finish at the track being seventh in his first start at the track in 2011.

Jack Harvey returns for his second consecutive race with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He finished 14th at Watkins Glen in his road course debut and Sonoma has been a track that has been kind to Harvey. He swept the Indy Lights doubleheader at the track in 2014 and not only swept but he led every lap from pole position in each race and he picking up the fastest lap in the second race to earn him a grand slam. Despite his successful weekend at Sonoma in 2014, he lost the Indy Lights championship on tiebreaker to Gabby Chaves.

Sébastien Bourdais could become the first driver to bookend the season with victories since he and Dan Wheldon did it in 2006 in Champ Car and IRL respectively. Bourdais has been all over the map with his results at Sonoma. He finished sixth in his first start at the track in 2011 with Dale Coyne Racing but that was followed by a 22nd after a crash in 2012. He would finish tenth and 11th the next two years and he had a penalty for spinning Graham Rahal drop him to 20th in 2015. Last year, he finished tenth. He has made it to the second round of qualifying in five of six opportunities.

Fast Facts
This will be the sixth IndyCar race to take place on September 17th and first since Juan Pablo Montoya won at Gateway in 2000.

Excluding the Indianapolis 500, only three winners this season have scored fewer than three bonus points.

Four of the six championship-eligible drivers enter Sonoma with one victory this season. The last champion to only have one victory was Tony Stewart in 1997. The last champion with two victories was Gil de Ferran in 2001.

Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi have won the last two races. The last time three consecutive races were won by three different American drivers was in 2005 when Sam Hornish, Jr. won at Milwaukee, Byran Herta won at Michigan and Scott Sharp won at Kentucky.

Chevrolet has won every year at Sonoma since the start of the DW12-era in 2012.

Of the ten tracks that have been on the IndyCar schedule every year since 2012, Chevrolet was unbeaten at two tracks during that timeframe entering this season, Sonoma and St. Petersburg. Chevrolet did not win at St. Petersburg in March.

Chevrolet has won every season finale in the DW12-era.

The average starting position for a Sonoma winner is 2.692 with a median of two.

Only once has the winner started outside the top five. The worst starting position for a Sonoma winner was ninth by Scott Dixon in 2015.

Scott Dixon's only victory this season came at Road America. The last time Dixon did not win multiple times in a season was 2005.

Currently, the top eight in the championship have won a race this season. The last time the top eight in the championship each had a victory was the 2001 CART season.

Tony Kanaan has one podium finish this season. The last time he did not have multiple podium finishes in a season was 2001.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has finished in the top ten in four consecutive Sonoma races and he has made the final round of qualifying in three of those races.

Marco Andretti is the only driver to have won at Sonoma in IndyCar and Indy Lights. Should he take the green flag at Sonoma, this will be the 200th start of Marco Andretti's IndyCar career.

Dan Gurney and Marco Andretti are the only American drivers to win an IndyCar race at Sonoma.

Takuma Sato has finished on the lead lap in the last three Sonoma races after failing to finish on the lead lap in his first four starts at the track.

The average number of lead changes in a Sonoma race is 5.538 with a median of six.

The average number of cautions in a Sonoma race is 2.91667 with a median of 2.5. The average number of caution laps is 9.1667 with a median of ten.

Possible Milestones:
Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 36 laps to reach the 900 laps led milestone.

James Hinchcliffe needs to lead nine laps to reach the 700 laps led milestone.

Takuma Sato needs to lead 22 laps to reach the 500 laps led milestone.

Graham Rahal needs to lead 50 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Team Penske sweeps the top four in qualifying because that is what the team has done at high downforce racetracks, the team runs strong all race and Scott Dixon ends up winning the championship. James Hinchcliffe is the top finishing Canadian and the top Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver. At least two Ganassi drivers not named Scott Dixon finish ahead of two Penske drivers. Sleeper: Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

2017 Pirelli World Challenge Season Finale Preview

IndyCar won't be the only series ending its season this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. The 2017 Pirelli World Challenge season comes to a close and there are two championships to be awarded in the GT classification. Twenty cars are entered for the GT season finale and 21 cars are entered in GTS. This weekend marks the return to competition for Memo Gidley for the first time since his devastating accident in the 24 Hours of Daytona over three and a half years ago. Gidley will be behind the wheel of the #101 Porsche GT3 R for TKO Motorsports.

Sprint GT Championship
Five drivers are alive for the Sprint GT championship.

Patrick Long enters as the championship leader with 157 points. The #58 Wright Motorsports driver has won two sprint races and he has stood on the podium after six of seven sprint races this season with his worst finish being a fifth in the first Mid-Ohio race. Long has yet to win a pole position for a sprint race this season. Long swept the PWC races at Sonoma in 2011 but finished eighth and fourth last year at the track.

Defending PWC GT championship Álvaro Parente trails Long by five points with the driver of the #9 K-PAX Racing McLaren having won four of seven sprint races this season but the Portuguese driver has failed to stand on the podium in the other three sprint races. Last year, Parente finished fourth and second in his first trip to Sonoma. Last year, Parente became the first European GT championship since Andy Pilgrim in 2005. Parente could become the fourth driver to win consecutive GT championship joining Michael Galati, Randy Pobst and Johnny O'Connell.

Forty-four points behind Long is this year's SprintX co-champion Michael Cooper. The #8 Cadillac driver has not won a sprint race this season with his only podium finishes being second in the first Mid-Ohio race and third in the first Road America race. Last year, Cooper finished third in the first Sonoma race but finished a lap down in 21st in the second race.

Cooper's teammate Johnny O'Connell swept the Sonoma weekend last year and this year he enters trailing Long by 49 points. O'Connell has not won a race this season in any PWC competition. He has stood on the podium three times this season after finishing second to Long in the second St. Petersburg race and consecutive third place finishes at Road America and Mid-Ohio.

Daniel Mancinelli is the final driver alive for the Sprint GT Championship but the driver of the #31 TR3 Racing Ferrari needs to score the maximum 52 points this weekend and he would need Long to fail to score points in both races. The Italian has been the surprise this season in PWC. He won pole position for the season opener at St. Petersburg but his best finish this year in a sprint race was fourth on three occasions.

The final two sprint races of the 2017 Pirelli World Championship season will take place at 5:15 p.m. ET on Saturday September 16th and 1:15 p.m. ET on Sunday September 17th.

Overall GT Championship
Three of the Sprint GT Championship contenders are also going for the Overall GT Championship.

Long enters leading the Overall GT Championship. He has 320 points from the 10-race SprintX Championship and the first seven sprint races. On top of Long's two sprint victories, he also won twice in SprintX, including a victory at Circuit of the Americas two weeks ago. He has nine podium finishes from the 17 races.

Parente trails Long once again but this time the Portuguese driver is 28 points behind the American and Long could clinch the title a race early by winning pole position and finishing second. Parente did not win a SprintX race this season but he has had seven total podium finishes this season. Unfortunately, he failed to score points in two SprintX races.

Cooper won the SprintX Championship with co-driver Jordan Taylor on the back of one victory and five podium finishes. He is 32 points behind Long in the Overall GT Championship heading into Sonoma.

GTS Championship
The 2017 Pirelli World Challenge GTS Championship has already been locked up. Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro driver Lawson Aschenbach clinched the title at Circuit of the Americas with finishes of fifth and ninth bringing his points total to 326 points. Aschenbach has only won one of the first 14 GTS races this season but he has been on the podium 11 times with seven runner-up finishes and three third-place finishes. This is Aschenbach's third GTS championship and fifth PWC championship overall. He won the 2006 GT championship and the 2011 TC championship.

The battle will be for second but Panoz's Ian James has a firm grasp on that. The British driver has 253 points and he has won five of the last eight races with seven podium finishes in that time frame. James is 18 points clear of Mantella Autosport KTM driver Martin Barkey. The Canadian driver has yet to stand on the podium this year but he has finished fourth twice and won three pole positions.

The Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche drivers Rodrigo Baptista and Nate Stacy are tied on 219 points. Baptista has won four races this season but he has scored a single point or fewer in four races this year. Stacy on the other hand has only failed to score points once and he has only one other finish outside the top ten. Stacy won last year at Sonoma in the first GTS race. He has finished third on two occasions this season.

A notable addition to the GTS grid this weekend is Alex Lloyd in the #22 Porsche for CRP Racing. Lloyd has two victories at Sonoma from four Indy Lights starts and his 2007 victory at the track clinched him the Indy Lights championship that season. Lloyd's most recent IndyCar top ten finish came at Sonoma when he finished tenth in his only IndyCar start at the track in 2010.

The first race of the GTS weekend will be at 8:15 p.m. ET on Saturday September 16th. The final GTS race of 2017 will be at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday September 17th.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Is IndyCar Turning Japanese or German?

Márc Marquez won a wet race from Misano with a final lap pass on Danilo Petrucci and Márquez and third-place finisher Andrea Dovizioso are tied on 199 points with five races to go. The Moto2 and Moto3 races saw plenty of riders go down in the wet conditions. There was a wet race from the Nürburgring and the changing conditions cost a few drivers top finishes. NASCAR had an ambulance cause a stir. A future Formula One driver won again in Japan and he could be in Formula One sooner than we thought. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Is IndyCar Turning Japanese?
We have covered the strangeness of IndyCar silly season. Everyone seems to be on the move and yet a lot of things appear to be staying the same.

Andretti Autosport is sticking with Honda after all but the team is not keeping all its drivers. Alexander Rossi is staying put but Takuma Sato exits to return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It has become pretty clear Tony Kanaan and Max Chilton will not return to Chip Ganassi Racing. Ed Carpenter Racing has only confirmed Ed Carpenter will be back for 2018. One seat is in question at Dale Coyne Racing and Sébastien Bourdais is not the driver in question. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was chasing Alexander Rossi and it now has to look elsewhere. A.J. Foyt Racing may clean house after cleaning house last year. Team Penske appears to be contracting to three cars with Hélio Castroneves moving to the Acura sports car program.

More drivers appear to be lining up at IndyCar's already busy door. Besides the dozen current drivers who will be free agents this offseason, there are also a handful of Indy Lights drivers who are looking for a chance at the top level of North American open-wheel racing and a few interesting names from other forms of motorsports. Former Sauber F1 driver Felipe Nasr was at Watkins Glen and was putting out his feelers for a future move to IndyCar. Robert Wickens, who just won at the Nürburgring this weekend for Mercedes-Benz in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, is open to a move to IndyCar. Current Porsche LMP1 factory driver Brendon Hartley could be in line with a move to Chip Ganassi Racing. Sage Karam could be making a return to IndyCar and I am sure there are another half-dozen drivers I am forgetting.

The rumor that has me the most intrigued is the potential Hartley to Ganassi deal because I think it could signal a shifting culture in IndyCar that could be very beneficial to the series but could also lead IndyCar down a dangerous path and leave it in worse shape.

According to Racer's Marshall Pruett, Hartley's arrival to IndyCar sounds more like Honda would facilitate it and not a Honda team. Hartley would become a Honda-factory driver and paired with a Honda team, which could be Chip Ganassi Racing or it could be Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. What makes this more intriguing to me is that since Hartley would be a Honda-factory driver, he could be used as an endurance driver for the Acura DPi program, meaning Hartley could potential drive for Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske simultaneously.

Honda has been taking a more hands-on approach when it comes to the drivers within its IndyCar line-up. We know about Sato's relationship with Honda but Rossi's future with Andretti Autosport hung on whether or not the team stayed with Honda. It didn't sound like it was because of personal preference for Rossi but rather a professional tie to the manufacture. Honda even had a hand in facilitating Sébastien Bourdais' move to Dale Coyne Racing before the start of this season.

All these moves have me wondering are we seeing a new culture in IndyCar where the manufactures play more of a role in who is in the cars? It has been a rough ride for Honda in the last couple IndyCar seasons and a few seasons ago Honda had a significantly less experienced and less successful driver line-up. Has all these years of not having the upper to Chevrolet in terms of technical performance and drivers finally led the manufacture to take control and take some of the ease off the teams? It makes sense for teams to have Honda provide a driver, as the driver would be a loanee, with Honda paying him or her. The team wouldn't have to worry about spending out of pocket for a driver and at the same time would not have to rely on a pay driver who might not have the talent to compete at the front.

It appears Honda of North America could be taking a common practice in Japanese motorsports and applying it in North America. It is normal for drivers to sign for a manufacture and race in Super Formula and Super GT. Takuya Izawa has been a Honda driver in Super Formula and Super GT for the last decade and his relationship with the brand led to him getting a shot in the GP2 Series when Honda returned to Formula One with McLaren and McLaren had a tie to ART Grand Prix. Kazuki Nakajima is a part of the Toyota LMP1 program but he also drives for Team TOM'S in Super Formula and Super GT. Nakajima's Toyota LMP1 teammate Kamui Kobayashi also has a ride in Super Formula, driving a Toyota for KCMG.

It would also be similar to what the German manufactures in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. It wasn't long ago when Audi LMP1 drivers such as Tom Kristensen and Frank Biela and Mike Rockenfeller spent time in the DTM when not driving the Audi R8 or Audi R10. Even today, drivers for Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW are running multiple series for the manufactures. René Rast, Nico Müller and Jamie Green have each been involved in a handful for Blancpain GT Series races for Audi while Maxime Martin, Tom Blomqvist and Bruno Spengler have done the same for BMW. Lucas Auer has moonlighted for Mercedes-Benz in the ADAC GT Masters this season while Maro Engel has run the Bathurst 12 Hour and Spa 24 Hours for the manufacture.

Depending on what happens with Hartley, we could see all five Honda teams with a driver that Honda helped secure the seat for. While Honda has been helpful, Chevrolet has been hands-off. The one noticeable difference is the three Chevrolet teams have paying seats. Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing each have sponsors footing the bill but while they are all paying rides only one Chevrolet team has been responsible for all the of the manufactures' victories this season. At the same time, all of Chevrolet's victories are coming from Team Penske with drivers the manufacture isn't paying anything for. It doesn't seem like Chevrolet should start getting involved but getting involved could add more depth to the Chevrolet IndyCar roster.

There is some cause for concern with Honda's recent approach to IndyCar. While it brings quality drivers to the grid and keeps veterans in the series, it could lead for a harsh reality if or when Honda pulls out of IndyCar. All of a sudden a handful of drivers will be without the manufacture connection and teams will have to start paying drivers or hiring pay drivers. At the same time, if Honda cannot gain the upper hand with this talent, especially next year with the introduction of the universal aero kit, it could be a waste of money while Chevrolet had no influence over who drove a Chevrolet-powered car and saved some pennies along the way.

It will be interesting to see if Honda continues funneling talent to the series and if it works for the manufacture will it force Chevrolet to get more involved in who is on the grid? Chevrolet failed to entice Andretti Autosport to come back and it will be tough to expect any Honda team to switch over without any aid. A Honda team at the bottom of the pecking order could use Chevrolet's desire to have an additional competitive team to get a deal on engines or have the manufacture help pay for a driver or two quality drivers.

I don't think we will see teams stop signing drivers all together. Teams are still going to want specific drivers and are going to want sponsors to cover those costs. The Penskes, Ganassis and Andrettis of the world are going to want to decide who is in their cars. But how much of a shift do we see if IndyCar does not become a more appetizing place for sponsors? Manufacture-supported drivers could become the only way some teams remain on the grid if things don't change. While top names could be joining the series with help from Honda and maybe Chevrolet in the future, IndyCar should still want to increase its exposure to attract more sponsors and have teams be sustainable on their own.

IndyCar could be heading down a dangerous path if Honda and Chevrolet get too involved in where drivers go and then decide to bounce from the series but at the same time manufacture influence could strengthen the grid and keep familiar faces in the series. Only time will tell us if manufacture involvement in the driver market is for the best of the series.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Marc Márquez and Robert Wickens but did you know...

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup race from Richmond. Brad Keselowksi won the Grand National Series race.

Dominique Aegerter won the Moto2 race from Misano. Romano Fenati won the Moto3.

Lucas Auer won the Saturday DTM race from Nürburgring while Wickens won on Sunday.

Pierre Gasly won the Super Formula race from Autopolis, his second consecutive victory.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar season finale from Sonoma.
Pirelli World Challenge sprint season finale from Sonoma.
Formula One heads to the streets of Singapore for the tenth time.
NASCAR begins its Chase at Chicagoland for the final time.
Circuit of the Americas hosts the FIA World Endurance Championship for likely the final time.
World Superbikes return to Algarve after a year away.
Nürburgring is in use for a second consecutive weekend as it hosts the Blancpain Sprint Series season finale.
The Supercars series has its first endurance race of the season at the Sandown 500.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

1000 Words: 2007 IndyCar Series Season Finale

Saturday marks the tenth anniversary of a three-way title fight for the Indy Racing League championship. The title fight marked a pivotal time for IndyCar though most of us didn't know what was going to transpire in the coming offseason.

Dario Franchitti had controlled the championship ever since he won the rain-shortened Indianapolis 500 in May. He closed the first half of the season with a pair of victories, the inaugural Iowa race and at Richmond. He had eight top five finishes from the first nine races and six of those finishes were on the podium. However, the tide turned when the calendar switched over to July. Scott Dixon went on a tear, winning three consecutive races at Watkins Glen, Nashville and Mid-Ohio. However, Franchitti kept finding a spot on the podium. While Dixon clawed his way back into the championship fight, Franchitti was preventing Dixon from taking control of the title race.

The gap between the two drivers was 24 points entering Michigan, a race we went over a month ago. Franchitti leading the most laps in that race prevented Dixon from gaining any ground but the next race at Kentucky saw Dixon take a chunk out of the Scotsman's lead. Franchitti had to make an extended pit stop to replace a damaged front wing after hitting a cone entering the pit lane after going side-by-side into the pit lane with his teammate Danica Patrick, dropping him from contention. Tony Kanaan went on to win the race with Dixon finishing second and A.J. Foyt IV finishing third. Franchitti took the checkered flag but as the last car on the lead lap in eighth and not challenging for seventh but Franchitti had not realized he took the checkered flag. By the time he realized the race was over, he ran over the back of Kosuke Matsuura and flipped. Both drivers walked away and Franchitti's lead was down to eight points.

Sonoma appeared to be a chance for Franchitti to extend his championship lead. He led 57 of the first 63 laps. It appeared he would cycle back to the lead during the final pit cycle but a collision with teammate Marco Andretti at the top of the hill in turn two after the American's pit stop put Andretti in the tires and caused significant damage to Franchitti's front wing with Dixon set to be second for the restart. He was a sitting duck and Dixon took the lead with eight laps to go before another caution. Fortunately for Franchitti, he had his teammate Kanaan run block and keep the Scotsman in third. Dixon won the race and took a three-points lead in the championship over Franchitti.

The penultimate round at Belle Isle saw Franchitti once again running better of the two title contenders and he took the lead just before the first caution. However, a flurry cautions shook up the field and Franchitti found himself behind Dixon as the race came to a close. Kanaan led Buddy Rice, who was stretching fuel, Dixon and Franchitti. The frequency of cautions caused the race to become a timed race. Dixon was itching to get by Rice and pick up a few more points on Franchitti. On the penultimate lap, Dixon made a move on Rice in the penultimate corner and slight contact put him into the tire barrier while Dixon spun exiting the corner and momentum caused him to back into Franchitti. However, Franchitti was able to be re-fired and take the checkered flag and Dixon was out of his car. Franchitti would finish ahead Dixon and Rice would be classified ahead of Dixon. Add the bonus points for most laps led and Franchitti had a seven-point lead entering the season finale at Chicagoland over Dixon and Kanaan was mathematically still alive for the championship, 39 points behind his teammate.

Franchitti started on pole position but the Team Penske cars of Sam Hornish, Jr. and Hélio Castroneves went by early and Dan Wheldon and Dixon would be up to third and fourth within 20 laps. One point separated Franchitti and Dixon at that point in the race. Marco Andretti had an accident in turn four bring out the first caution on lap 34. Dixon jumped to second on that round of pit stops while Franchitti remained in fifth. Dixon took the championship lead, seven points over Franchitti.

The race had a really good pace. After the first caution the next 93 laps were run under green flag conditions. Most of the race saw the Team Penske cars leading Dixon, Wheldon and Franchitti in lockstep. It is quite noticeable how processional these races were by the time the IRL reached 2007. This wasn't pack racing at all. Everyone was spaced out. The top five were gone from the rest of the field. They were covered by less than a second but sixth on back were nowhere to been seen well before the halfway point of the race.

Vitor Meira had an accident during the third round of pit stops with 63 laps to go. The Team Penske drivers had already stopped as had Wheldon while Dixon was on the pit lane as the caution was thrown. Franchitti had stayed out and was the leader until he made his pit stop. Dixon had exited the pit lane before Franchitti passed him meaning he remained on the lead lap and inherited the lead when Franchitti came in. The lengthy yellow put drivers into position to try and stretch it on fuel if they decided to top off for fuel. Both Dixon and Franchitti topped off with 52 laps to go and both drivers remained first and second respectively.

Within ten laps after the restart Hornish, Jr. retook the lead while Franchitti lost positions to Danica Patrick, Wheldon and Castroneves. Franchitti would get back by Patrick but was still fifth while Dixon ran second and held a seven-point championship lead. With 17 laps to go Hornish, Jr. made a pit stop, handing the lead to Dixon while Franchitti moved up to third after he passed Castroneves later that lap but Dixon took a 12-points advantage over Franchitti.

Franchitti was concerned that he was not going to be able to make it with out another caution while Dixon was trying to conserve fuel while in the lead before he let Wheldon by and settled into second position but cutting his championship advantage to two points as Franchitti ran in third. Wheldon ran out of fuel entering turn one with seven laps to go and later that lap Patrick spun entering pit lane causing a caution with six laps to go. The events of those ten laps left Dixon and Franchitti as the only two cars on the lead lap when the race restarted with two laps to go.

Dixon held the lead while Franchitti ran on the high line for the majority of the penultimate lap. On the final lap, Franchitti settled behind Dixon on the back straightaway and caught a draft into turn three only to have Dixon run out of fuel and forced Franchitti to make a quick move to the outside to take the lead and win the race and the championship. Dixon coasted to second.

It is interesting to see how the last ten years have gone. I don't think anyone thought after that race that Franchitti would go on to win two more Indianapolis 500s and three more championship.  After that race it seemed the consensus was Franchitti was on his way to the Acura sports car program with then-Andretti Green Racing and then came the surprise NASCAR deal with Ganassi. Of course, the NASCAR stint didn't go as planned and by the end of 2008 he and Dixon would be teammates.

Ten years later, Scott Dixon heads to another IndyCar season finale sitting second in the championship by a handful of points. He has since added another three championships and another 30 victories, including an Indianapolis 500 and a half-dozen fuel mileage races that went his way. He will go down as one of the all-time greats in IndyCar history and he could have the second-most IndyCar championship in a week in a half (depending on how you look at the history books and if you consider Rick Mears a six-time champion because he won the Indianapolis 500 two years when it was the only round of the USAC Gold Crown Championship).

Sam Hornish, Jr. would also be heading to NASCAR after the 2007 season and he has not raced in IndyCar since. I am not sure anyone expected Hornish, Jr. to stay in NASCAR for as long as he has. I don't think Hornish, Jr. gets enough credit for how respectable of a NASCAR driver he has become. It took sometime but he did become a competitive driver and he had a championship slip out of his hands in the then-Nationwide Series. He has gone on to win five races in NASCAR's second division and he has become somewhat of a super one-off driver. It is kind of a shame that he moved on completely from IndyCar and hasn't come back to do the Indianapolis 500 as a regular one-off. Hornish, Jr. left before reunification. I wish we got to see him compete against this current quality of a grid.

That Chicagoland race was the debut for Hideki Mutoh, who would finish eighth. His IndyCar career was respectable but not overwhelming successful. I doubt Mutoh thought that day at Chicagoland ten years later he would be teammates with Jenson Button. While this race would be the debut for Mutoh and the farewell for Hornish, Jr., it would also be a farewell to P.J. Chesson, who drove for Roth Racing in this race.

The 2007 season finale had 22 cars; pretty similar to the grid size we will see at Sonoma this season. It is hard to argue that the quality of the grid hasn't gotten better. Gone are Marty Roth and Milka Duno. We don't have any drivers we scratch our heads over. Everyone has had success and has raced well in a junior series. There isn't a driver on the grid that you can pencil in as being the slowest and be a second off the second-slowest car on the timesheet. IndyCar has come a long way, even if it doesn't feel like it. Reunification helped.

While not being the greatest oval race ever, even at an average Chicagoland race there is a clear difference in feelings and nerves when ending a season on an oval to a road course. At an oval, there is more of a chance of the deck being shuffled up or a car coming from the back and at the start of the race a driver could be looking good only to have a pit cycle or two see them slide down the running order and find themselves losing the championship. At a road course, the variance isn't there. Cars don't jump from the back to the front as often and most of the time it only happens when a caution comes during the middle of a pit cycle to shuffle everything up.

This was the last season where Team Penske didn't have a driver in championship contention entering the season finale. That is a pretty good record but when you consider in the last ten seasons that team has only won two championships, it makes you scratch your head.

On second viewing of this race, it wasn't as good as I remembered it. Before watching it I had thought it was one of the more underrated race in IndyCar history, a hidden gem because of the split. The racing itself wasn't that great and I think at the time the championship battle and the fact that the two drivers going for the championship were running first and second with two laps to go and were the only cars on the lead lap is what made me believe it was a great race. Don't get me wrong, the climax couldn't have been scripted any better and for those final 50 laps my heart was firmly placed in my throat and even second time watching I felt my heart rate go up but when you consider what happened on the race track, it is hard to say anything happened. The top five ran away from the field and remained pretty much in that order. There might have been great racing going on from sixth to last but ABC didn't show any of it. If that was the case, it felt like the director at that time really mailed it in and decided just to stay on the front five.

There is something I miss about those days even though they were segmented, spec and sub-optimal. If you didn't pick a side, the split was kind of fun. You got to enjoy 31 American open-wheel races in a year. That is never going to happen again but this is where you take quality over quantity. They might not be our favorite days in IndyCar history but this is all we have to look back on and for some this is what they grew up with and they didn't know about the politics and loved it because it is all they had. It might not have been pretty but it was fun nonetheless.