Thursday, September 13, 2018

Track Walk: Sonoma 2018

For one final time the Bay Area will host the Astor Cup decider
The final round of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season takes place at Sonoma Raceway and one of four drivers have a chance to leave with the Astor Cup as the 2018 IndyCar championship. Scott Dixon has led the championship since his victory at Texas and the New Zealander's 598 points gives him a 29-point advantage over Andretti Autosport's Alexander Rossi. Team Penske teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden are each 87 points behind Dixon. Dixon is looking to become only the second driver in IndyCar history with at least five championships. Power and Newgarden could both earn their second titles. Northern California's Rossi is looking to become a first-time champion at his home race. This race is a double points race.

Time: Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday September 16th with green flag scheduled for 6:40 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 2:00 p.m. ET (45-minute session. NBCSN will have taped coverage at 4:00 p.m. ET Friday)
Second Practice: 6:00 p.m. ET (60-minute session. NBCSN will have live coverage of this session)
Third Practice: 2:00 p.m. ET (45-minute session)
Qualifying: 6:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have tape-delayed coverage at 8:00 p.m. ET)
Race: 6:40 p.m. ET (85 laps)

Championship Battle
Scott Dixon enters as the championship leader and the only way he can guarantee himself of winning the championship is to finish second.

If Alexander Rossi scores maximum points he will need Dixon to finish third or worse. The worst finish Rossi can have and win the championship is tenth.

Will Power and Josef Newgarden can only win the championship by winning the finale. If either score maximum points they would need Dixon to finish 22nd or worse and Rossi to finish ninth or worse.

All four championship contenders enter tied with three victories apiece. When it comes to tiebreakers, Dixon holds the advantage over Rossi. Each driver has three victories, a second-place finish and four third-place finishes but Dixon has two fourth-place finishes to Rossi's one. Even if Rossi finishes fourth, Dixon holds the tiebreaker with two fifth-place finishes to Rossi's one.

If either Power or Newgarden win the race they will take control of the tiebreaker. The only way there could be a three-way tie if either Power or Newgarden score maximum points, for Rossi to score 46 points, which can only be done by finishing ninth and scoring two bonus points, which can only be done by winning pole position and leading a lap, and Dixon scores 17 points, which can be done either by finishing 22nd and leading a lap or finishing 23rd and leading the most laps.

After not having a top five finish in the first four races of the season, Dixon has top five finishes in 11 of the last 12 races including five consecutive top five finishes. His worst finish this season was 12th at Iowa. His worst finish on a natural-terrain road course this season was sixth at Barber. He has not finished outside the top twenty on a road course since he finished 22nd at Mid-Ohio in 2016. He has the best average finish heading into the finale at 4.375.

While Dixon has been consistent in races, qualifying has been wishy-washier. He has not won a pole position this season and his average starting position is 8.4. He has started outside the top ten in the last two races that featured qualifying and the only time he has made the Fast Six on a natural-terrain road course this season was at Barber, where he started sixth. His average starting position on natural-terrain road courses is 10.4.

Rossi's average starting position of 6.6 is the fourth best this season and he has started in the top five in six consecutive races and in eight of the last nine. He has started ahead of Dixon in six of those nine races. Rossi's average finish of 5.625 is second only to Dixon and he has six consecutive top ten finishes but outside of his stretch of three consecutive podium finishes with victories at Mid-Ohio and Pocono and a runner-up finish at Gateway, his next best finish in this six-race stretch is eighth.

Power has been the king of qualifying this season as the Australian has an average starting position of  2.4. He has won four pole positions this season and he has started on the front row in nine races. Power has started on the front row for all five natural-terrain road course races this season. While Power has been penciled in at the front end of the grid all year, results have been scattered all over the board. He has finished outside the top twenty in four races and three of those results were on natural-terrain road courses.

Newgarden enters with seven consecutive top ten finishes but his only podium in that stretch was his Road America victory. His three victories are his only three podium finishes this season. This could be the fewest podium finishes in a season for the Tennessean since 2014 when his only podium finish was second at Iowa. Newgarden has not been the top Team Penske qualifier since he won pole position at Toronto and he has not been the top Team Penske finisher since he finished fourth at Iowa.

Team Penske has won seven of 14 Sonoma races including the last two years. Power and Dixon are tied for most Sonoma victories with three apiece. Power has won five pole positions at the track and he has never started worse than fourth. His average starting position at the track is 1.9. He has not led a lap in the last two Sonoma race and last year was his fifth podium finish as he rounded out a sweep of the top three for Team Penske. Dixon is tied with Dario Franchitti for most top five finishes at Sonoma with seven and Dixon has eight top ten finishes. In 13 starts, Dixon has failed to complete only one lap at Sonoma. He has made it to the Fast Six on nine occasions. Like Power, Dixon has not led a lap in the last two Sonoma races. Power has led 276 laps at Sonoma, the most all-time and Dixon is third all-time with 121 laps led.

Rossi has started eighth in both his Sonoma starts. He finished fifth after running out of fuel coming to the finish in 2017 and last year an engine issue caused him to only complete 60 of 85 laps and finish 21st. Newgarden's runner-up finish last year was his first podium finish at the track. Prior to that he had finished sixth twice, however, in Newgarden's other three starts he finished outside the top twenty. The defending champion has started on the front row in three of the last four years at Sonoma and last year he started on pole position before leading 41 laps.

Fight For Fifth
Ryan Hunter-Reay is attempting to finish in the top five of the championship for the first time since he won the 2012 championship. The American has 462 points and he is coming off a runner-up finish in Portland, his fifth podium finish of the season. Hunter-Reay will end the season with the third most top five finishes this season regardless of the results on Sunday. He has nine top five finishes, the most he has had in a single season. His ten top ten finishes are his most since 2012.

Hunter-Reay is 34 points ahead of Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has won the last two years at Sonoma. Pagenaud is one of three drivers to have won consecutive Sonoma races along with Power and Dixon. Pagenaud has the third best average finish all-time amongst drivers with at least three starts at the track. His average finish of 6.9 is behind only Franchitti's 3.4 and Juan Pablo Montoya's 4.7.

Pagenaud has nine consecutive top ten finishes but he has only three top five finishes this season. Hunter-Reay hit a bit of a rough patch this summer. His runner-up finish at Portland was only his second top fifteen finish in the last six races. His other top ten result was seventh at Mid-Ohio.  Hunter-Reay has five consecutive top ten finishes at Sonoma. He finished runner-up to Dixon in 2014 and 2015 but he has only led nine laps in 11 starts.

Robert Wickens sits seventh in the championship on 391 points and the Canadian has clinched 2018 Rookie of the Year honors.

Top Ten Mixer
Seventy-five points cover eighth to 14th in the championship.

Graham Rahal leads that grouping on 378 points and he is nine points ahead of Sébastien Bourdais in the championship. Rahal has finished outside the top ten in three of the last five races after having ten top ten finishes in the first 11 races. Rahal has not had a top five finish since he finished fifth in the second Belle Isle race. Bourdais' third place finish at Portland was his first podium finish since he won at St. Petersburg. Despite having only two top five finishes in his last eight races compared to three top five finishes in the first eight races Bourdais' average finish in the last eight races is 10.625 compared to 12.25 in the first half of the season.

James Hinchcliffe is eight points behind Bourdais and rounds out the top ten in the championship. He has finished outside the top ten in the last four races after he had nine top ten finishes in the first 12 races of the season. He has not finish on the lead lap in the last three races after he had finished on the lead lap in his first 12 starts. Takuma Sato's Portland victory has him 20 points behind Hinchcliffe. Last year was the first time Sato finished in the top ten of the championship when he finished eighth.

Marco Andretti is 29 points outside the top ten. He has not finished in the top ten of the championship since he finished ninth in 2015. Andretti is coming off his first retirement of the season after being caught in the opening lap accident at Portland. Spencer Pigot is 65 points outside the top ten and he has finished in the top ten in the last two races and his fourth place finish at Portland was his first top five finish on a road/street course. Pigot is currently in position to score the best championship finish for an Ed Carpenter Racing driver not named Josef Newgarden. The previous best was achieved last year when J.R. Hildebrand finished 15th.

Ed Jones is 14th in the championship, 75 points behind Hinchcliffe. Jones has finished outside the top ten in five of the last six races. The Emirati driver finished 14th in the championship last year and he is 22 points ahead of Zach Veach.

New Kids on the Block
The final Sonoma race will be the first IndyCar race for the top two drivers from this year's Indy Lights championship.

Patricio O'Ward and California's Colton Herta will each make their IndyCar debuts driving in a two-car effort for Harding Racing. O'Ward will drive the #8 Chevrolet while Herta will become the third different driver to get into the #88 Chevrolet this season.

Herta and O'Ward are set to become the fourth youngest and 12th youngest drivers in IndyCar history respectively. Each driver will become the second youngest drivers from their respective countries in IndyCar history. Herta will be only behind Graham Rahal while O'Ward would be behind Josele Garza. With a birthdate of March 30, 2000 Herta will become the first driver born in the 21st century to compete in an IndyCar race.

O'Ward took the Indy Lights championship with nine victories and 13 podium finishes in 17 starts. He ended the season with eight consecutive podium finishes. Herta finished 44 points behind his teammate in the championship. The American driver won four races and had 13 podium finishes but his final victory was the first race of the Road America weekend.

This will be O'Ward first appearance at Sonoma while Herta raced at Sonoma in 2014 in U.S. F2000 when he drove for JAY Motorsports. Herta finished seventh and ninth in those two races.

Herta's father Bryan made two starts at Sonoma in IndyCar. He started eighth in 2005 and ninth in 2006 and had finishes of 13th and tenth respectively. In the 2005 race, Bryan led 17 laps. He also finished third overall in the American Le Mans Series race at Sonoma in 2002 driving for Panoz with Bill Auberlen as his co-driver. Bryan's teammates David Brabham and Jan Magnussen took the overall victory while Champion Racing Audi's Tom Kristensen and Johnny Herbert finished second.

Early Incidents
One trend this IndyCar season is early caution periods and those cautions have been for drivers at the front of the grid.

Seven races have had a caution within the first five laps and there have been first lap accidents in three consecutive races. Four of those seven incidents have involved a car that has started in the top ten. Two of those incidents have involved cars starting in the top five. Not included in these incidents is the Pocono accident that sidelined Robert Wickens, which was the second caution of that race and it happened on lap seven. Three cars in that accident started in the top ten and one started in the top five.

Portland was the fourth road/street course race this season to have a lap one accident. St. Petersburg had its first caution on lap three.

While road/street course races have produced a lot of early collisions, there has been plenty of green flag racing to counterbalance the incidents. The first 46 laps of the first Belle Isle race were under green flag conditions. While there was a lap one accident in the second Belle Isle race, the final 67 laps were run under green flag conditions. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis also had a lap one accident but then had 52 consecutive green flag laps before the final caution period for five laps and the race ended with green flag conditions for the final 25 laps. Road America and Mid-Ohio were both caution-free races.

Last year's Sonoma race and the recent road course races in IndyCar have had notable differences in strategy decide races.

In last year's Sonoma race, Simon Pagenaud chose a four-stop strategy from third on the grid. His first pit stop came on lap 11. The Frenchman cycled to the lead on lap 21 and his second pit stop was on lap 30. Pagenaud rejoined in tenth position and he would cycle back to the lead on lap 40 with his third stop coming eight laps later. This time Pagenaud only dropped to third and he retook second on track from Will Power on lap 53. He was back in the lead on lap 62 after Josef Newgarden made his third and final stop. Pagenaud's fourth stop came on lap 64 and he came out ahead of Newgarden. Pagenaud would lead the final 19 laps on his way to victory.

Pagenaud was the only top ten finishers to use the four-stop strategy and the only other top fifteen finishers to make four pit stops were Spencer Pigot, who had to stop on lap one and ended up finishing 13th, and J.R. Hildebrand, who finished 14th but never got higher than 11th in the running order. One other note was last year's Sonoma race was a caution-free race.

This year's Mid-Ohio race was also a caution-free affair but Alexander Rossi dominated, leading 66 of 90 laps from pole position and Rossi was the only driver in the race to use a two-stop strategy. Despite the conservative choice, Rossi won by 12.8 seconds ahead of Robert Wickens, who chose a three-stop strategy but could not manage his way through traffic. Sébastien Bourdais started 24th at Mid-Ohio but finished sixth after stopping on laps ten, 37 and 63. Pagenaud started 17th at Mid-Ohio and stopped on lap 15, lap 41 and lap 64 on his way to an eighth place finish.

Portland featured four cautions and it allowed many different strategies, from the planned to the forced, to work. Rossi and Newgarden were pulling away from the field but a caution before they could make their second pit stops shuffled the American drivers to the middle of the field. However, the timing of the caution allowed other three-stop drivers to get to the front of the field. Race winner Takuma Sato stopped under the first caution on lap four, as did Bourdais and Dixon, both to repair damage from the first lap incident. Bourdais made a second stop on lap six and then made it to lap 40 and lap 75. Dixon did not stop until lap 38 and he served a pit lane speeding penalty two laps later but a caution would come out three laps after he served his penalty. Dixon made his final stop on lap 74 and the final caution for Santino Ferrucci's breakdown came out on lap 76. Sato stopped on lap 39 and he was able to stop on lap 75 before the Ferrucci caution came out.

Meanwhile, while Rossi and Newgarden were caught out on a three-stop strategy and the cautions allowed Sato, Bourdais and Dixon to vault to the front of those the American drivers, Ryan Hunter-Reay used the caution periods from lap 43-45 and lap 56-59 to get to him to lap 71 for his second and final stop. Hunter-Reay's three stint lengths were 33 laps, 38 laps and 34 laps. Hunter-Reay was not able to get ahead of Sato after his final pit stop and would end up finishing second to Sato with Bourdais in third.

Nine of 14 Sonoma races have featured multiple caution periods. Four Sonoma races have had a first lap caution. The average lap of the first caution at Sonoma is lap 21.7. Along with two caution-free races, three Sonoma races have had the first caution occur on lap 65 or later.

Last year's race saw pit windows from lap 13-23, lap 37-47 and lap 61-71 for drivers using a three-stop strategy.

Fast Facts
This will be the eighth IndyCar race to take place on September 16th and the first since Michael Andretti won at Mid-Ohio in 1990.

Chip Ganassi Racing is going for its 12th IndyCar championship.

Alexander Rossi could become the tenth Californian to win the IndyCar championship and first since Jimmy Vasser in 1996. Andretti Autosport is going for its fifth IndyCar championship.

Team Penske is going for its 16th IndyCar championship and the team's third consecutive title. Team Penske has won three consecutive championships on two prior occasions. The team won the 1977 and 1978 titles with Tom Sneva and won the 1979 championship with Rick Mears. Mears won the 1981 and 1982 titles before winning the 1983 title with Al Unser.

Josef Newgarden could become the first driver to successfully defend a championship since Dario Franchitti won three consecutive titles from 2009 to 2011. Newgarden could become the first American to successfully defend a championship since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2001 and 2002.

Tony Kanaan sits 16th in the championship, five points behind Zach Veach. Kanaan has only finished outside the top fifteen in the championship once in his career. He finished 19th in the 2000 CART season, a year where he missed four races due to injury. Kanaan's 2005 victory at Sonoma is his only IndyCar victory on a natural-terrain road course.

Charlie Kimball is ten points behind Zach Veach in the championship. Last year, Kimball finished 17th in the championship and he has never finished finish worse than his prior championship finish in two consecutive seasons.

Matheus Leist could finish ahead of Veach in the championship for second best rookie of the 2018 season. Leist trails Veach by 50 points and if Veach finishes last Leist would have to finish at least fifth and pick up one bonus points to surpass the Ohioan in the championship.

Max Chilton is looking for his first top ten finish of the season. His two prior Sonoma finishes are 16th and 12th.

Jordan King is looking for his first top ten finish of the season. Ed Carpenter Racing has only one top ten finish at Sonoma and that was when Josef Newgarden finished sixth in 2016.

Jack Harvey won his only two Indy Lights starts at Sonoma in 2014. Harvey and Marco Andretti are the only previous Indy Lights winners at Sonoma entered in this year's race.

Carlos Muñoz scored his first career fastest lap at Portland. Muñoz's four Sonoma finishes are 19th, 22nd, 15th and 15th.

Pietro Fittipaldi picked up his first career top ten finish at Portland when he came home ninth. His cousin Christian Fittipaldi finished 40th in the 2003 NASCAR Cup race at the track and he made three Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series starts. His uncle Max Papis made three NASCAR Cup starts at Sonoma with his best result being 12th in 2009. Papis also made starts in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and American Le Mans Series at the circuit.

Santino Ferrucci has not score more than ten points in a race in his IndyCar career. The least number of points that can be scored this weekend is ten points.

The average starting position for a Sonoma winner is 2.714 with a median of 2.5.

The worst starting position for a Sonoma winner was ninth in 2015 by Scott Dixon.

The average number of lead changes in a Sonoma race is 5.571 with a median of six.

Eight of 14 Sonoma races have featured more than five lead changes.

The average number of caution in a Sonoma race is 2.692 with a median of 2.5.

Only once has a Sonoma race had more than four cautions.

Last year's Sonoma race had 161 total passes and 97 of those were passes for position.

Possible Milestones:
Chip Ganassi Racing is one victory away from tying Newman-Haas Racing for second all-time in team victories in IndyCar with 107 victories.

If they take the green flag this race will be the 50th starts for Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton.

Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 64 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Graham Rahal needs to lead 21 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Charlie Kimball needs to lead 37 laps to reach the 200 laps led milestone.

Will Power wins the race from pole position. Scott Dixon finishes fourth after his best qualifying performance on a natural-terrain road course this season and Alexander Rossi finishes fifth. There will not be a caution within the first 30 laps. No rookies finish in the top ten. Carlos Muñoz does finish in the top ten. Colton Herta qualifies ahead of Patricio O'Ward but finishes behind him. Simon Pagenaud does not make the final round of qualifying but finishes at least six positions better than his starting position. At least three top ten finishers use a four-stop strategy. At least one Ed Carpenter Racing driver starts and finishes in the top ten. Sleeper: Graham Rahal.