At the risk of sounding repetitive, the IndyCar Series is heading for a dustbowl this weekend. I say that because every year prior to the race at Sonoma Raceway, that has been the word I have always used to describe the track formerly known as Infineon Raceway and Sears Point before that.
I had always wondered why TV announcers would always speak of its beauty, when all viewers saw was brown grass, dirt and a lot of dust anytime someone would go off course. It wasn’t until IndyCar did some pre-season testing of the DW12 prior to last season, that I realized there was a time when the grass was green at Sonoma. Not only was it green, it was lush and full.
It made me wonder why NASCAR or IndyCar waited until later in the year to race there, when that green grass had died and turned brown. I’ve been to northern California once in my life, but it was in July. Maybe there is a climate-based reason that they don’t race there in the spring. If not, perhaps when Mark Miles (hopefully) does a major re-work of the 2015 IndyCar schedule, he’ll try and move the IndyCar race there to the spring.
I am not going to lie. This is not my favorite race. It never has been. In fact, it is probably one of my least favorite races on the schedule. There is a reason it has earned the nickname “Snoroma”. The majority of the races I have watched there have been sleep-inducing, and I see no reason to think this one won’t be as well.
The real drama this weekend may not be the race on the track, but rather how it affects the race within the points battle. There are five races remaining in the season. The natural-terrain road course at Sonoma, the street race at Baltimore next week, then after a ridiculous five-week layoff the series resumes with a double-header on the streets of Houston before wrapping up with the 500-miler on the two-mile oval at Fontana.
This is an odd championship battle. Helio Castroneves has led the points standings most of the summer. He won the race at Texas, but has been very unspectacular since. However, he’s done nothing wrong. He has been very consistent by having a second-place finish here, a few eight-place finishes there, scattered in with a couple of podium finishes at the start of the season..
By contrast, last year’s race winner at Sonoma, Ryan Briscoe, had a few results similar to Helio’s last season and he lost his ride. The difference was; Briscoe also had seven finishes out of the top-ten in a fifteen race season. After fourteen races this season, Helio has one finish out of the top-ten – a thirteenth place finish at São Paulo.
Normally, the kind of consistency Castroneves has shown this season will land you a comfortable top-five finish in the points, but not the championship. But this is shaping up as the championship no one seems to want.
Scott Dixon is the latest to falter when making a serious run at Helio. Dixon had won three races in a row and was poised to overtake Helio by winning Mid-Ohio – a track where he had won three of the last four races. Instead, he was never really a factor and he finished an unremarkable seventh and lost points to Castroneves, who was equally unremarkable by finishing sixth.
Last year’s champ, Ryan Hunter-Reay was on a roll earlier this summer. With a win and three second-place finishes in a five race stretch; Hunter-Reay was within nine points of leading the points. But bad luck at Pocono started a string of bad finishes. He is now in third pace, but mired sixty-five points behind Helio.
Marco Andretti led the points at one point this summer. He was an odds-on favorite to be a multiple race winner this season, given the good start he had and the new-found maturity from working with a driving coach in the offseason. However, Marco has also faded and now sits in fourth place, seventy-six points behind. One driver who won his first race this season, Simon Pagenaud, is in fifth place – but is considered out of the running by being over a hundred points behind.
Some might call this a four-person battle, while others have narrowed it down to Castroneves and Dixon – Penske and Ganassi. As time goes on, I’m beginning to think more and more that Helio may win it through consistency and nothing else. Someone pointed out earlier that it would be a shame if Helio won it with only one win, and that was a tainted win because his winning car in Texas was found to be out of compliance. I actually wrote about that at the time, but his infraction was proven to actually hurt performance and not improve it.
So getting back to Sunday’s race; qualifying will be very important at Sonoma. There are not a whole lot of passing opportunities, so if someone starts up front – chances are they will stay up there barring any bad luck.
Team Penske has won four of the last five races at Sonoma, including the last three. Although Chip Ganassi Racing has outperformed Team Penske lately, I expect The Captain’s team to be ready this weekend. My prediction? It’ll be a Penske weekend. Helio Castroneves will remain consistent and improve his points lead, while his teammate, Will Power, will win the race and finally end his losing streak.