IndyCar at Sonoma: Movers and shakers

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The night before Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma, a 6.0 earthquake hit nearby Napa, sending shock waves throughout the area.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon slept through the temblor, but Team Penske and its polesitting driver, Will Power, were awakened in the middle of the night and briefly forced out of their hotel rooms.

That was the first quake. The second came about 12 hours later, when Dixon won the race and Power finished 10th. Power retained his commanding lead in the championship standings, which is now a three-way battle with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second at a circuit where his team historically has struggled to find performance. After failing to make the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying, Hunter-Reay was one of several who benefited from a first corner incident involving James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Sebastien Bourdais.  All would continue, but Castroneves’ title hopes were dealt a setback. Simon Pagenaud finished third for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, an impressive result after a difficult weekend.

Power, who entered Sonoma leading the championship, took off to an early lead along with Newgarden and Dixon. Ahead by a comfortable margin, Power inexplicably spun at turn 7 on lap 36, shuffling him down the order.  “It took me by surprise when I spun. Thankfully I kept if off the clutch when it happened. That’s just racing.”

Dixon had to pedal for the win, but a succession of fuel-starved Dallaras fell by the wayside and lightened his task.  Ed Carpenter Racing’s Mike Conway took the lead on lap 40, thanks to an alternate fuel strategy after a mediocre qualifying (P17). The gamble was paying off until Graham Rahal passed Conway, who was trying to save fuel but also knew that Rahal had to stop before the finish.

At that point, one of Conway’s pit crew members pointed at the name below Conway’s on the timing sheet: Scott Dixon.  Dixon was gaining, taking advantage of fresh rubber against the scuffed Firestone reds Conway took on his final stop.  Conway – conserving every precious drop of Sunoco fuel – was passed by Dixon on lap 83. “I was doing all I could to keep those boys behind,” the Englishman said, spent after another shrewd charge to the front.

Conway’s car ran out of fuel on the final lap, and he coasted across the finish line before stepping out for the long walk back to his pit.  Dixon had enough for the finish, and the win.  “I think the team did a fantastic job with the strategies,” he said.  By winning, Dixon reached fifth on the career win list, joining Bobby Unser.

Although Dixon remains a mathematical possibility for series champion, Power retained a 51-point lead ahead of the season finale at Fontana. Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay were both eager to see the updated points tally after the post-race press conference, but only Pagenaud has a legitimate shot, should both frontrunners falter.

While Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud were startled to find the earth moving at 3:20 am, Dixon remained blissfully unaware. Maybe it’s the relaxed Kiwi nature, but Dixon was no worse for wear from his Sonoma shaker.

You can’t say the same about the rest of his championship rivals.

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IndyCar at Sonoma: Where the only constant is change

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IndyCar driver James Hinchliffe describes Sonoma’s occasionally slick track surface as “polished”. Fellow driver Juan Pablo Montoya says one or two turns are “blind and scary”. But that’s also part of Sonoma’s allure, the kind of character that leads drivers from multiple disciplines to describe the circuit as “a driver’s track.”

At a media lunch ahead of Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix, Montoya and Hinchliffe reflected on what drivers like about the 12-turn, 2.38 mile course situated in Northern California’s wine country.  For Montoya, who has previously raced the circuit in stock cars, the change to an open-wheeler was eye opening.  “It’s fun to be on the gas,” Montoya said. “It’s incredible how slow (the Cup) cars used to go here. It takes half a straight to get wide open (in a stock car)”.

Montoya marked turns 3-3a as especially difficult (“Really really hard.  Turn 3 is where I lose everything.”), in addition to Turns 6 and 7 (“blind and scary”). The speed impressed Montoya upon his return to IndyCar.  “We use a shorter course in NASCAR and we still do the same lap time (in an IndyCar).”

Hinchliffe conceded that Andretti Autosport has not experienced much success at Sonoma, although Ryan Hunter-Reay has tested here, and the team hopes to change its fortunes.  “If we have a bad weekend, I’m blaming Ryan”, Hinchliffe joked. Hinchliffe was kidding, but he was visibly disappointed by the lack of testing compared with Montoya and Team Penske, who have visited the circuit several times this season. It’s especially difficult because there is no Friday practice for the IndyCar Series this week.

It’s the unpredictable nature of the circuit that both drivers agreed makes it a challenge.  Hinchliffe said that some drivers would prefer to skip the morning practice because the data, taken in the early morning cold, does not correlate to conditions at race time. Sonoma experiences wild swings from cool, gray mornings to blazing hot afternoons, followed by stiff sea breezes in the afternoon. Qualifying this year will take place in late afternoon. Hinchcliffe even cautioned against gleaning much from the data, lest the team change an otherwise optimal setup based on the wrong weather conditions.

Inevitably, both drivers’ thoughts turned to the championship leader, Montoya’s Penske teammate, Will Power.  “We’re all chasing Will”, Montoya said.  The Australian has a comfortable lead as the series heads into the next-to-last round, and Power already has three wins and a second place at Sonoma. Getting Power out of his groove won’t be easy, although Montoya is never short of confidence.

In most years, winning at Sonoma requires equal parts aggression and tire management, knowing when to push and when to let the race come your way. Cautions are a fact of life, ruining strategies and mixing up the field. Hinchliffe expects a few of the mid-grid qualifiers to start on Firestone’s black tires, trying to make something happen at a circuit where it’s difficult to find passing room.

And that’s part of what makes road racing at Sonoma special. When Montoya described some of the more challenging turns, he had a big grin on his face. Like he was having fun…the way it should be.

**Qualifying for the GoPro Grand Prix is live on NBC Sports Network and @LiveExtra at 7:30 pm et on Saturday.

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