Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Five: Magny-Cours, Barcelona, Sepang, Dover

This weekend the calendar will not only switch from September to October but it sees a pair of antepenultimate rounds on two wheels, a final endurance race, the final edition of a Formula One grand prix and the final race of this round for the NASCAR Chase.

World Superbikes
Three rounds remain in the World Superbikes championship and three riders remain alive for the championship but Jonathan Rea could clinch his third consecutive championship this weekend at Magny-Cours.

The Kawasaki rider holds a 120-point lead over teammate Tom Sykes and if Rea outscores Sykes by five points in the opening race of the weekend he will clinch the championship with five races to go. If Rea holds a 100-point lead after this weekend he will also clinch the championship. Rea has won 11 of the first 20 races and he has stood on the podium 19 times. Sykes has won twice this season and has been on the podium 14 times. Sykes missed the last race at Portimão after a practice accident.

Chaz Davies trails Rea by 135 points with 150 points remaining on the table. Davies has won six times this season and the Ducati rider swept last year's races at Magny-Cours while Rea finished fourth and second in the respective races and Sykes finished third in both races. Rea swept the Magny-Cours round in 2015. Marco Melandri is the only non-British rider to win a race this season. He won the second race at Misano.

American Jake Gagne replaces the injured Stefan Bradl at the Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team. Gagne made his debut at Laguna Seca and finished 15th in both races.

Rea could become the first rider to win three consecutive World Superbike titles and he would tie Troy Bayliss for second-most all-time in World Superbike championships. Rea is one victory away from becoming the third rider to have won 50 World Superbike races. Carl Fogarty is the all-time leader on 59 victories and Bayliss won 52 races.

Race one of the weekend will be at 7:00 a.m. ET on Saturday September 30th with race two taking place at 7:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 1st.

World Supersport
Kenan Sofuoglu took the World Supersport championship lead with his victory in the most recent race at Portimão. Despite missing the first two races due to injury and retiring from the third race of the season, the Turkish rider has 145 points off the back of five victories and a second place finish. The Kawasaki rider is gunning for his third consecutive championship and a record extending sixth World Supersport championship.

Four points back of Sofuoglu is Yamaha rider Lucas Mahias. The French rider won at Aragón earlier this season and he has finished on the podium in seven of nine races this season. Fellow Yamaha rider, South African Sheridan Morias is third in the championship on 114 points. Morais won at Lausitzring two rounds ago but his only other podium finish this season was a second at Aragón. Honda rider Jules Cluzel has four podium finishes this season and he is fourth in the championship on 104 points but Cluzel has yet to win a race this season. American P.J. Jacobsen has a shout for the championship but he trails by 66 points with 75 points left on the table. Jacobsen's only podium finishes this season was a pair of thirds at Aragón and Imola.

Sofuoglu has retired from two of the last three Magny-Cours races. He does have two victories at the track, which came in 2007 and 2013. Cluzel won last year's race at Magny-Cours and he also won at the track in 2012 and 2014. Jacobsen's most recent victory was at Magny-Cours two years ago.

The World Supersport race will be at 5:30 a.m. ET on Sunday October 1st.

Blancpain Endurance Series
The final round of the Blancpain Endurance Series and the Blancpain GT Series takes place this weekend with a three-hour race at Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona.

Two teams are fighting for the Blancpain Endurance Series. The #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley of Vincent Abril, Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet lead the championship with 79 points. The #8 Bentley won at Circuit Paul Ricard and finished second at the 24 Hours of Spa. The team finished sixth at Monza, fifth at Silverstone and was fifth at the six-hour mark and 12-hour mark in the 24 Hours of Spa, which paid points.

Eight points behind the #8 Bentley is the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini of Mirko Bortolotti, Andrea Caldarelli and Christian Engelhart. The Italian-German trio won the first two races of the season at Monza and Silverstone and was second at the six-hour mark at Spa and leading at the 12-hour mark but retired from that race and finished 13th at Circuit Paul Ricard.

In the overall Blancpain GT Series championship, Bortolotti and Engelhart lead Abril by 22 points with 138 points to 116 points. Bortolotti and Engelhart scored 67 points in the Blancpain Sprint Series season and won two races while Abril scored 37 points in the sprint series and his best finish in the sprint series was second and Abril finished outside the points in six of the ten sprint races.

The 3 Hours of Barcelona will begin at 9:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 1st.

Malaysian Grand Prix
Five drivers are alive for the World Drivers' Championship with six races remaining in the 2017 season.

Lewis Hamilton extended his championship lead at Singapore as the Mercedes driver has 263 points after winning three consecutive races. Hamilton holds a 28-point lead over Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel. Valtteri Bottas sits third in the championship, 51 points behind his teammate. Daniel Ricciardo sits in fourth, 101 points behind Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen sits 125 points back in fifth and Räikkönen needs to outscore Hamilton by at least a point this weekend to keep his slim championship hopes alive.

Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez are tied on 68 points in sixth with Esteban Ocon, who has scored in eight consecutive races and 13 of 14 races, 12 points back in eighth. Carlos Sainz, Jr. is coming off a fourth place finish at Singapore and he is ninth on 47 points. Nico Hülkenberg rounds out the top ten on 34 points with Felipe Massa three points back and Lance Stroll another three points behind his teammate. Romain Grosjean sits on 26 points ahead of his Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen who has 11 points.

Fernando Alonso has ten points with Jolyon Palmer coming off his first points finish of the season, a sixth at Singapore, good enough for eight points. Stoffel Vandoorne has seven points with Pascal Wehrlein on five points. Daniil Kvyat has four points but he will be replaced this weekend by the defending GP2 Series champion and current second place in the Super Formula Championship Pierre Gasly. Marcus Ericsson is still looking for his first points of the season.

This will be the final time Formula One contests the Malaysian Grand Prix for the near future. This will be the 19th time the Malaysian Grand Prix has been on the Formula One schedule. Sebastian Vettel is tied for the most Malaysian Grand Prix victories with John MacDonald. Both drivers have won four Malaysian Grand Prix with MacDonald winning twice when the race was run to Tasman Series specs, once in Formula Pacific specs and once in Formula Atlantic specs. Ferrari has the most Malaysian Grand Prix victories for a constructor with seven.

Hamilton's only Malaysian Grand Prix victory came in 2014 and that is also the only Mercedes victory at Sepang. Ricciardo's victory last year at Sepang was the fourth for Red Bull in the race. Fernando Alonso has three Malaysian Grand Prix victories and Kimi Räikkönen has won at Sepang twice.

The Malaysian Grand Prix takes place at 3:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 1st.

NASCAR heads to Dover International Speedway for the final race of the first round of the Chase and one-third of the second round spots are already taken.

Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch are locked in off their victories at Chicagoland and Loudon respectively and Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski have locked in their spots for round two based on points.

Denny Hamlin sits on 2,088 points and he is 44 points to the good with Matt Kenseth a point behind his teammate. Jimmie Johnson sits 32 points above the drop zone. Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are tied on 2,070 points, 26 points to the good. Despite his accident at Loudon, Kevin Harvick sits 25 points to the good and Jamie McMurray is 11th on 2,053 points, nine points from the drop zone.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Austin Dillon are tied for 12th on 2,044 points with Stenhouse, Jr. holding the tiebreaker with a 15th-place finish being his best finish in round one with Dillon's best finish being 16th. Ryan Newman is a one point on the outside. Kurt Busch trails by 17 points and Kasey Kahne is 16th, 21 points out.

Johnson has the most all-time victories at Dover with 11 including winning this year's June race. Johnson is the most recent driver to sweep the Dover races. He did that in 2009.  He has led 3,100 laps at Dover and finished in the top ten in 22 of 31 starts at the track.

Kenseth and Newman each have three Dover victories with Kenseth's most recent victory at Dover being May 2016 and Newman has not won at Dover since September 2004. Truex, Jr. won last year's Chase race at Dover and it was his second at the track. Kyle Busch has two Dover victories with the most recent being May 2010. Keselowski, Harvick and Kurt Busch are the only other Chase drivers to have won at Dover.

The NASCAR Cup race from Dover takes place at 2:15 p.m. ET on Sunday October 1st.

Over or Under?
1. Over or Under: 140.5 combined points scored by British riders in World Superbike at Magny-Cours?
2. Over or Under: 1.5 French riders on the World Supersport podium?
3. Over or Under: 5.5 Italian drivers scoring points at Barcelona?
4. Over or Under: 2.2 second improvement in fastest lap at Sepang compared to last year?
5. Over or Under: 6.5 cars in the largest accident at Dover?

Last Week's Over/Unders
1. Under: Only one non-Cadillac finished on the Prototype podium and that was the race-winning #90 Ligier of VisitFlorida Racing.
2. Over: Eight Spaniards scored points in the MotoGP race at Aragón.
3. Under: One American team scored a podium finish at Spa-Francorchamps. The #2 United Autosport Ligier finished third in LMP3.
4. Under: There were zero retirements in the Super Formula at Sportsland SUGO.
5. Under: There were zero non-stage ending cautions prior to the start of the final stage of the Cup race at Loudon.

1. Jonathan Rea clinches the World Superbike title this weekend but does not sweep the weekend.
2. P.J. Jacobsen finishes ahead of at least two of the four riders ahead of him in the championship.
3. One of the overall Barcelona winners will have won at Barcelona before but in another series.
4. Lewis Hamilton wins his fourth consecutive race.
5. The biggest story after the Cup race will be what happens on the racetrack.

Last Week's Predictions
1. A GTD team gets its first podium finish of the season (Wrong! All three GTD podium finishes had finished on the podium earlier this season).
2. Valentino Rossi scores fewer than 11 points at Aragón (Wrong! Rossi scored exactly 11 points).
3. Both the #22 G-Drive Racing Oreca and the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin do not finish on their respective class podiums (Wrong! The #22 Oreca finished second in class).
4. Felix Rosenqvist gets his first career Super Formula victory (Wrong! Yuhi Sekiguchi won the Super Formula race and Rosenqvist finished fifth).
5. Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick finish in the top five but not both (Correct! Kenseth finished third and Harvick finished 36th).
Overall: 1/5

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Ed Carpenter Racing's 2017 Season

The second IndyCar Wrap-Up looks at another Chevrolet team. Ed Carpenter Racing had a transition year but brought back a familiar face to the IndyCar grid full-time and saw Ed Carpenter continue to split a car with a young talent. The results weren't always there and the team had its worst season since the early days of the ECR but it had flashes of potential.

Despite two podium finishes, J.R. Hildebrand finds himself out of a ride again
J.R. Hildebrand
After three-plus years away from full-time IndyCar competition, Hildebrand returned to competition in the #21 Chevrolet, an entire team in transition from the Josef Newgarden-era. He had a respectable season opener at St. Petersburg going from 19th and 13th. He had a tough weekend at Long Beach but was in position for a top ten finish when starting the final lap. That was ruined when Mikhail Aleshin hit him from behind and not only cost Hildebrand a top ten but broke the American's wrist and sidelined him for Barber.

Hildebrand returned for Phoenix and went toe-to-toe with the four Team Penske entries. He qualified third and stayed at the front the entire race but he couldn't best the juggernaut of Simon Pagenaud and Will Power and he had to settle for third. He was not able to carry over that competitive pace to the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and finished 14th but Ed Carpenter Racing was the best of the Chevrolet teams in Indianapolis 500 qualifying and Hildebrand started sixth, the second-best Chevrolet on the grid. In the race, Hildebrand ran in or around the top ten all race and he was in contention for a top five until he got penalized for jumping the restart with nine laps to go, dropping him from a top finish to 16th.

The next race at Belle Isle saw another late penalty; this one with 15 laps to go for an improper pit exit cost him a shot at another top ten finish. He tried a three-stop strategy in the second Belle Isle race but contact with Ed Jones ended any hope of that producing a result for the American. Hildebrand worked his way into the top ten at Texas and was then caught up in the lap 152 accident but the team repaired his car and the extra laps he ran got him up to 12th in the final results. Road America was another 16th place finish.

Hildebrand had Iowa in his hands until he was balked in traffic late and it allowed Hélio Castroneves to go by and he had to settle for second. He had another unenthusiastic 13th at Toronto and he was the only driver caught out by the only caution at Mid-Ohio and that cost him a shot at a top ten finish. Contact with James Hinchcliffe killed his day at Pocono and he spun on his own at Gateway. Pit strategy and a caution went his way early at Watkins Glen and then the strategy went against him and he dropped to 15th. He closed his season with a 14th at Sonoma.

J.R. Hildebrand's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 15th (347 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 2
Laps Led: 42
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 15.25
Average Finish: 13.625

Ed Carpenter Racing may have found its new star in Spencer Pigot
Spencer Pigot
In his second year of part-time IndyCar competition, Pigot had plenty of promising races but some results didn't match what he did on the racetrack. He started 13th and was in the top ten early in the St. Petersburg race after passing the likes of Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan and Alexander Rossi to get there and then he had the brakes explode on him while entering his pit box for his first stop of the day. He turned a two-stop strategy into an eighth place finish at Long Beach, with some help from four retirements from Andretti Autosport. At Barber, Pigot had another top ten run going until he spun exiting turn five while in eighth place.

He was back on track for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and he got up to sixth place from 16th on the grid at the end of the first stint but he stalled in the pit lane and fell back to 15th. He rallied and finished ninth ahead of the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and former teammate Josef Newgarden. He made his second Indianapolis 500 start with Juncos Racing, starting 29th but he was off the pace all race and struggled to finish 18th, six laps down. Pigot went from 17th to tenth in the first Belle Isle race and never got higher than 15th in race two where his engine expire with five laps to go.

He had a quiet 12th-place finish at Road America followed by a terrific opening stint at Toronto where he went from 13th to fifth with more audacious moves on Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Unfortunately, Pigot got caught out by the Kanaan caution and he had to make an unscheduled pit stop after contact with Takuma Sato later in the race. A hard accident in the morning warm-up derailed his day at Mid-Ohio and he couldn't do any better than 19th. He led his first career laps at Watkins Glen after having a caution fall his way but an early pit stop knocked him out of contention for a top ten to 12th and an early pit stop put him at the back in Sonoma but he finished 13th.

Spencer Pigot's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 20th (218 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 3
Laps Led: 8
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 17.0833
Average Finish: 15.0

It wasn't a bad year for Ed Carpenter but it could have been better
Ed Carpenter
Carpenter returned for another year of oval-only appearances and it appeared it would not start well as he had to start 21st at Phoenix. The good news for Carpenter was five cars were taken out in the first turn and the superior Chevrolet high downforce aero kit got him up to seventh, albeit it two laps down. The good run continued at the Indianapolis 500 where he was the fastest Chevrolet and was the only Chevrolet in contention for pole position but he had to settle for second on the grid. In the race, Carpenter ran respectively in the race but front wing damaged forced him to make an extra pit stop and he had to settle for an 11th place finish.

Carpenter was a part of the third of the field taken out in the lap 152 accident at Texas but he was able to get repairs and run enough laps to get another 11th place finish. He was fighting in and around the top five for most of the day at Iowa but he fell off a cliff in the final third in the race and finished 12th. He had another 12th-place finish at Pocono and he had nowhere to go when Will Power spun in turn two at Gateway and Carpenter hopped over the Australian and ended the season with a 21st-place finish.

Ed Carpenter's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 22th (169 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 5
Poles: 0
Average Start: 11.333
Average Finish: 12.333

The first year post-Josef Newgarden was a step back and I think everyone should have expected that. The team had a great talent that had half a decade to develop and he had developed a relationship with his engineer Jeremy Milless. Both left and it was going to be difficult to match their results.

With that said, I think you have to be a little bit disappointed in Hildebrand. He had two podium finishes on short ovals and one race he very well should have won but outside of those two races the results weren't there. He did have a few races taken from him. He was kind of screwed at the Indianapolis 500 and if he had finished fifth or sixth in that race, thanks to double points, he might be a position or two higher in the championship but that still would have been only three top ten finishes this season.

Pigot is knocking on the door and he deserves a full-time seat. He had some of the most impressive races this year. He made passes that most drivers would never dare to try and he didn't tear up equipment. What saves Hildebrand somewhat is Pigot too struggled in qualifying for road and street course races so it appears to be more of a team-wide issue than one driver.

Carpenter had a respectable year and other than Iowa, the poor results seem to have come from things mostly out of his control. The team has made the decision to promote Pigot to the #21 Chevrolet full-time and you can't fault the team for doing that. Pigot is ready for full-time competition and if ECR didn't sign him now he would likely go elsewhere and find success. While Pigot deserves to be full-time, Hildebrand should probably have gotten another year. This was a rebuilding year for the team but he is back to unemployment and wondering where else he can turn.

The team has to fill the #20 Chevrolet and there are three paths for the team: Sign an IndyCar veteran, sign an unknown driver from Europe or sign an Indy Lights driver. The team reportedly was interested in Sage Karam but I can't imagine Karam would want to take over the road/street course portion of the season for the #20 Chevrolet. If Karam is coming back to IndyCar he is going to want to be full-time and if Karam does take the road/street course races in the #20 Chevrolet, he better have ECR field a car for him in the Indianapolis 500.

Kyle Kaiser won the Indy Lights championship and while he has the three-race scholarship I think he would want more than the road/street course portion of the season and I think he wants to move up with Juncos Racing. Santiago Urrutia is another Indy Lights driver ready for IndyCar but he is a development driver for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and he also likely wants to be full-time.

The one driver I think could be a great road/street course driver for ECR is Hélio Castroneves and ECR could get Castroneves the best of both worlds. There doesn't appear to be any conflicts between the IMSA schedule and any road or street course races for IndyCar but we will have to wait and see if Mexico City is added and where it falls on the schedule. Castroneves could run the entire IMSA schedule, the 11 or 12 IndyCar road/street course races and the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves would get to run a fair amount of IndyCar races, he would still get to drive for Team Penske in the Indianapolis 500 and Roger Penske would be able to let Castroneves get his fill of IndyCar and Ed Carpenter would get a top driver who can compete at the front in road and street course races. It would be a win-win-win but as great as it sounds on paper it probably won't happen.

I am firmly in the boat Ed Carpenter Racing should field two full-time cars for two full-time championship contending drivers and Carpenter himself should either run only the Indianapolis 500 or run all the ovals in a third car. We might be closer to that day then we think when considering how many quality drivers are out there.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Is It a Bad Thing If The Champion Doesn't Win a Race?

The MotoGP championship might have swung in one direction. There were last lap passes and a photo finish at Aragón. Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon are back at it. IMSA had late battles for all three class victories at Laguna Seca and it even included a gutsy pass into the corkscrew. Two of the three European Le Mans Series class championships are on the verge of being settled but we did see a 20-point gap erased last year in the ELMS season finale so it isn't over yet. A Frenchman who could be on the Formula One grid later this year is closing in on a championship in Japan. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Is It a Bad Thing If The Champion Doesn't Win a Race?
Going into this weekend, it appeared a driver who had not won a race all season could win the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship. However, with Mattias Ekström winning race one of the weekend at the Red Bull Ring, with some help from Audi teammates, it appears that will not be the case this year. But there was another winless championship leader entering Sunday in the IMSA GTD class with the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari of Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan and they too picked up their first victory of the season at Laguna Seca. Despite these victories it did get me wondering if it would be a bad thing if a champion did not win a race all season.

I am not sure how many people would have a problem if a champion did not have a victory. To be honest, I never remember being concerned about how many race victories a champion had prior to NASCAR's implementing the Chase system prior to the 2004 season. Matt Kenseth won one race in 2003 and clinched the championship a race early while Ryan Newman won eight races that season and finished sixth in the championship. NASCAR tried for over a decade to get a system to incentivize winning races and then introduced the current system where Ryan Newman nearly won the championship won the title without winning a race and this year a driver could win the championship without winning a race.

We have lost sight of what it takes to win a championship. It isn't about winning the most races although that will likely help. It is about being the best driver over a collection of races whether that is 17 races, 18 races, 21 races or 36 races. Motorsports isn't as cut and dry as other sports. It isn't as simple as taking the driver with the most victories and giving them the crown. Most of the time the best lose more than he or she wins. Take Josef Newgarden this year in IndyCar. He won the championship and happened to win the most races with four victories but when you consider there are 17 races this season he won 23.5% of the team. For comparison, the worst team in Major League Baseball right now entering the final week of the season is the San Francisco Giants and its winning percentage is 39.1%.

In IndyCar's case those 13 other races should be factored into deciding the championship. Had Newgarden retired from the other 13 races whether it be because of accidents or mechanical failures, should those four victories have been enough to prop him up to be champion? Probably not.

This year IndyCar could have had its first champion with a single race victory for the first time in 20 years. Scott Dixon had one victory but he finished third in the championship off the back of seven podium finishes, ten top five finishes and 16 top ten finishes. Dixon had one bad race all year and it was completely out of his control after the damaged car of Jay Howard slid into his path exiting turn one in the Indianapolis 500. Then there was Simon Pagenaud, who won twice, half as much as Newgarden, but completed every lap this season, only the second driver to accomplish that feat. And Pagenaud didn't just ride around this year as he had six podium finishes, 13 top five finishes and 15 top ten finishes.

Any of those three and even Hélio Castroneves had seasons that were championship quality. Then you had Will Power who won three races, the second-most this season, but he finished fifth in the championship. Power is the best example of a potential flaw in having race victories being the sole criteria in deciding the champion. He had the second-most victories but he had seven finishes outside the top ten, four of which were finishes outside the top fifteen. Race victories should only be able to counterbalance the poor results to an extent and not completely erase them from the scoreboard.

I don't think it would have been a problem had Ekström won the DTM championship or Nielsen and Balzan won the GTD title without winning a race. Think about how rare winless champions are. They don't happen that often, close to never actually. We have had winless championships before, Tom Sneva, Scott Sharp, Oriol Servià, Austin Dillon to name a few and we will probably have a winless champion in a series in the future, possibly even this year in NASCAR.

When it happens we should not use it to define a series or think it is a problem and demand a change in a knee-jerk manner. It is a rare occurrence and there should be appreciation, not anger. Anger is a waste of time. Not all championships are won the same way. If someone does it without winning a race, more power to him or her.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Mattias Ekström, Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan but did you know...

Marc Márquez won MotoGP's Aragón Grand Prix. Franco Morbidelli won the Moto2 race, his eighth victory of the season. Joan Mir won the Moto3 race, his eighth victory of the season.

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Cup race from Loudon. Tyler Reddick won the Grand National Series race from Kentucky. Christopher Bell won the Truck race at Loudon.

The #90 VisitFlorida Racing Ligier-Gibson of Renger van der Zande and Marc Goossens won the IMSA race from Laguna Seca. The #24 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing BMW of John Edwards and Martin Tomczyk won in GTLM.

The #40 Graff Oreca of Richard Bradley, James Allen and Gustavo Yacamán won the European Le Mans Series race from Spa-Francorchamps. The #9 AT Racing Ligier of Alexander Talkanitsa, Sr., Alexander Talkanitsa, Jr., and Mikkel Jensen won in LMP3. The #51 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Andrea Bertolini, Gianluca Roda and Giogio Roda won in GTE.

Yuhi Sekiguchi won the Super Formula race from Sportsland SUGO with Pierre Gasly finishing second and Gasly is 0.5 points behind Hiroaki Ishiura for the championship lead with one round, a doubleheader at Suzuka, remaining in this year's season.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One heads to Malaysia for one final time.
NASCAR ends its first round of the Chase at Dover.
World Superbike has its penultimate round of the season at Magny-Cours.
The final Blancpain Endurance Series round will be at Barcelona.

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.