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.