IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma: Weekend Preview

by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via Stephen King/IndyCar (1, 3); Joe Skibinski/IndyCar (2)

Sunday’s IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma is the end of an era.

For one, it’ll mark the final Verizon IndyCar Series race held at Sonoma Raceway. In fact, if naming rights matter to you, it’ll be the final Verizon IndyCar Series race ever, as the series bids farewell to one of the sport’s most active and supportive title sponsors since before the CART-IRL split of 1996.

But it’s also the only race standing between us and a transformative offseason—one that should likely see the addition of two-time Formula 1 champion, 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, and 2016 Indianapolis 500 starter Fernando Alonso to the ranks of one of IndyCar’s deepest grids in decades. Add in a schedule whose only major changes have been the addition of Circuit of the Americas and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and even with how great this season has been, it’s going to be pretty hard to wait until March 2019.

We’ve still got a champion to crown for 2018, though, and four drivers who can win it, thanks to a unique double-points weekend.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon appears to have every good luck charm in the book concealed in his car somewhere, as the four-time IndyCar champion enters the event with a 29-point lead. Dixon somehow escaped a major first-lap kerfuffle at the IndyCar Grand Prix of Portland with nothing but minor scrapes to his livery, and persevered to finish fifth, actually gaining points on his championship adversaries in the process.

The good news for Dixon? He’s in control of his own destiny this weekend. The bad? Owing to the double-points weekend, he’ll have to finish second (or third, with at least two bonus points) to guarantee himself the championship.

That means that northern California’s own Alexander Rossi has a great chance of giving Andretti Autosport its first IndyCar title since 2012. Rossi, whose breakout third season in the series has seen a number of spectacular performances, is tied with Dixon at three wins, a second place, and four third places apiece, posing an interesting scenario should the championship come to tiebreakers.

Dixon’s two fourth-place finishes to Rossi’s one would currently be the decisive statistic, and the same margin holds between them in fifth-place results. In short, if Rossi’s going to win this title after tying his adversary, he’s going to need to do it from the podium.

Team Penske’s Will Power, the 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner, and Josef Newgarden, the defending series champion, are the only two other drivers eligible for the title. Tied at 511 points apiece, 87 back of Dixon and 58 behind Rossi, it’d basically take a perfect scenario: assuming nobody scores any bonus points, a win for either of them, 10th place or worse from Rossi, and 24th or worse for Dixon—which, at 25 entries, is possible, albeit unlikely.

If you’re looking for more than just title drama, though, the silly season is also in full force with a number of major rides on the grid still open for 2019. With top drivers like Sebastien Bourdais still on the open market, and a number of big seats (like the one next to Dixon at CGR) yet to be filled, plenty of drivers will be racing for a job this weekend. That includes Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward and runner-up Colton Herta, who will run Harding Racing’s first-ever two-car effort on Sunday.

With a week left to build up to the second-biggest race of the season (respect where respect is due to the Indianapolis 500, apologies to the Grand Prix of Long Beach), IndyCar fans have plenty to buzz about right now. And with none of this season’s most exciting questions yet answered, Sunday’s show is going to be a nail biter to the very end.

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