What has mostly been a two-horse race for the past month or so, will finally be whittled down to one on Sunday. The Verizon IndyCar Series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend for the season finale in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma that will decide the entire points battle – not only who wins the championship, but where others will fall in the final standings.
This is the second year in a row that the season finale has taken place at Sonoma. From what I understand, the in-person experience at Sonoma is far different from what we see on television from our couch. Those that go there frequently refer to the beauty of the area. It must be true because too many people say it. I have been to Northern California and much of its beauty is unsurpassed. It is absolutely breathtaking. I’ve never been to the wine country, but from what I can tell by photos and what people tell me, it is a beautiful area as well.
But the admitted limited view we get from our couch tells a different story, unfortunately. What we see is a dry, arid section of land that makes me thirsty to watch. In short, it looks like a dust-bowl. Personally, it ranks as just above Belle Isle as my least favorite track on the IndyCar schedule. Am I lobbying for it to be removed from the schedule? Absolutely not. I would, however, prefer that Sonoma not be the season finale that usually decides the championship and I sure don’t want it to receive double-points. But if you read last Friday’s post, you know that I don’t want any race to receive double-points – even the Indianapolis 500.
But, from what I’m told – sponsors and their clients love going there. Since the happiness of a sponsor is the life’s blood of the sport, I’m not going to complain too much. It’s going to be this way for the foreseeable future, so we can deal with it. Not being my favorite track is certainly not going to keep me from watching the race.
What we are really watching will be the battle on the track between Team Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Pagenaud has led the points since finishing second in the second race of the season at Phoenix. The next three races found Pagenaud standing atop the podium after each one. Winning three races in a row can usually put you way in front of your nearest challenger. He added a win later in the season at Mid-Ohio to give him four on the year.
Will Power had a much tougher journey to get to this point. Power was unable to even start the first race of the season due to an inner-ear infection. Other than a third-place finish at Phoenix and a fourth at Barber, he struggled through the first half of the season until winning the second race at Belle Isle. Power caught fire after that. Through six races, Power won four times and finished second twice, as Pagenaud was running through a string of not-so-great finishes – except for his win at Mid-Ohio.
Heading into this weekend, Will Power trails Pagenaud by forty-three points. For Power’s sake, it is probably a good thing that there are double-points – otherwise the championship would have already been pretty well determined. As it is, Power still has his work cut out for him. But he couldn’t ask for a better track to try and track down his rival. Power has been racing at Sonoma in every race since 2010. In that time, he has won five of six possible poles, and won three races while finishing second in another. Power’s worst finish at Sonoma was tenth in 2014 – the year he won the championship. It’s hard to imagine many drivers having as much as a decided advantage at a particular track than what Will Power has at Sonoma.
Pagenaud’s IndyCar record at Sonoma is not near as impressive as Power’s, but it isn’t terrible. Since his first race in 2011, Pagenaud’s best finish is third in 2014. He also has a fifth and seventh place finish to balance out finishing fifteenth in 2011 and sixteenth last season. But based on comparing the two histories of the two drivers, you’d have to give the nod to Power on who would beat the other in the race.
Even if Power wins the pole tomorrow and leads the most laps on his way to winning on Sunday, it’s still not easy. That would amount to a total of 104 points. In That scenario, Pagenaud would have to finish fourth or better to still win the championship. If Power wins the race, but fails to win the pole or lead the most laps, Pagenaud could still be champion by finishing fifth. If Power crashes out early – Pagenaud can coast for the rest of the day and still be crowned.
Looking at it that way from a distance, one would conclude that Pagenaud will walk away as champion. But given the two driver’s histories at Sonoma and the way each driver has been trending since the halfway point of the season – the picture gets muddled. Throw in the fact that you’ve got at least twenty other drivers trying to close out their season on a high note by winning, then you’ve got a very compelling picture coming together for Sunday.
Like Sonoma or not, it is a track that is unforgiving and usually offers an unexpected twist or two. Just ask Juan Montoya about when he was pursuing his championship at Sonoma last year. It didn’t work out as expected.
But as I’ve been saying since June, I think Will Power will win this championship. He can do it without winning the race, but that makes it a much tougher road. But that scenario will not take place. I predict Will Power will win the race on Sunday and also the 2016 IndyCar championship, which will cap off an amazing run from his DNS at St. Petersburg in March. If he does win it, it will be greatly deserved.