Those that have been longtime readers of this site know that the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma is one of my least favorite races on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. In fact, the only thing that keeps it off of the bottom, is the fact that it takes place on a natural terrain road course instead of a temporary street circuit. Therefore, Belle Isle still sits at the bottom of my personal and very unscientific ranking system.
I will admit, I’ve never been to Sonoma Raceway, formerly known as Infinion Raceway and Sears Point Raceway prior to that. Those that go there seem to love it. Many people that I know and fully trust, go there on an annual basis. They swear by the beauty of the track. When I tell them that on television it looks like nothing more than a dustbowl – they clarify their statement by saying it is the region that is gorgeous. That I can buy.
There are times when the track is actually beautiful. A couple of years ago, IndyCar held a pre-season open test at Sonoma in early March. I was shocked! The whole landscape looked like Ireland, it was so lush and green. It didn’t even resemble the brown, arid hills that we see in August or NASCAR fans see in June. From what I understand, it is always that green in the early spring. I can’t help but wonder if I would like this race any better if it was run in the spring instead of late summer.
But, for now it’s not – so we’ll take it as it is.
The one saving grace for this year’s race is that it is vital in the championship; since it is now the penultimate race on the schedule. But the double-points looming at Fontana may make this race seem not as important. Don’t buy into that for one minute. Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud will be fighting for every possible point available at Sonoma. Pagenaud will be especially feisty this weekend, since he is not as experienced on ovals as are Power and Castroneves. Chances are, he will do better at Sonoma than the two-mile oval at Fontana next Saturday night.
But don’t lose sight of the fact that Will Power is almost batting 1.000 at Sonoma. He has won three of the four races he has started there. The only exception was 2012, when he finished second to his then-teammate Ryan Briscoe. First, first, second and first is not a bad record. Of course, Power was entered at Sonoma in 2009, but broke his back in a frightening crash with Nelson Philippe. The incident ended the season for both drivers.
But barring that unfortunate crash when Power was a part-time driver for Roger Penske, his record in wine country is almost perfect. The two drivers chasing Will Power have pretty good records too in the last couple of years. Simon Pagenaud has the most ground to make up, ninety-two points to be exact, in order to win the championship. Since he joined Sam Schmidt in 2012, his record at Sonoma is seventh and fifth respectively. In that same time period, Helio Castroneves finished sixth and seventh in the same races. That’s not bad, but when you look at Will Power’s record at Sonoma – they need to do better than “not too bad”. They both need to win while hoping Power encounters some bad luck along the way, in order to make Fontana really interesting.
Although these three may be the only drivers with a realistic shot at the championship, the rest of the field has plenty to race for. Some drivers are trying out for new jobs, while others are trying to save their present ones. Others are just trying to build momentum for next year. Remember, Will Power was pretty much out of contention most of last season, but he won the last two races of 2013 and that momentum has carried over to this year.
Tony Kanaan is one of those drivers. The first half of this season is one that Kanaan would like to forget. Chip Ganassi Racing was having an abysmal season by their standards, and Kanaan’s was no better. He just didn’t seem to be clicking with his new team for the No.10 car. But at the halfway point, things started to gel. Although Tony Kanaan has yet to win a race this season, he has been a threat at practically every track in the second half. Although he crashed on the first turn at Mid-Ohio, remember he still qualified on the front row. As I speculated back in April – Tony Kanaan will be just fine.
I’m going to be keeping my eye on Josef Newgarden. The young Nashville native is another one that has been flirting with victory, but hasn’t been able to push all the right buttons. His team, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, has announced a merger with Ed Carpenter Racing. Besides Pagenaud, Newgarden may be the most intriguing free-agent on the market. His contract is up after Fontana. He has a contract offer awaiting his signature, but he is smart to see where all the dominos fall – if they do. Pagenaud could go to Andretti and Newgarden could fill his seat at Schmidt. Pagenaud could stay put and Newgarden could go to Andretti. Or, everyone could stay where they are. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Another factor is where will James Hinchcliffe wind up, but I feel confident he will stay at Andretti.
While I would like to see the points race tighten up at Sonoma, so that things will be very interesting at Fontana – Will Power is just too strong to ignore at Sonoma. My heart says to pick Helio, Pagenaud, Newgarden or Tony Kanaan to win at Sonoma. But this time, I’m going with my head. Will Power will make it four out of five when he wins this Sunday.