For the thirteenth consecutive season, the series championship for IndyCar will be determined with the last checkered flag.
This is the primary narrative as the Verizon IndyCar Series holds their 2018 finale, the IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma this Sunday at 5:30 pm Central. The 85-lap feature on the 2.385-mile permanent road course covers 202.7 miles and held a 2017 average lap speed of over 113 miles per hour.
The drama danced with every Californian curve is accentuated by a tussle for the overall 2018 championship. Add a “double the race points” scenario that the year-ender provides and the race becomes a “must-watch” for open-wheeled enthusiasts.
Current points leader Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) currently holds a 29 point edge over Alexander Rossi (Andretti Autosport) but almost saw that lead slip-away at the series’ last race in Portland multiple times. A first-lap incident that involved five cars saw the New Zealander fall to the back of the pack. An additional drive-thru penalty for a pit-lane violation compounded the problem.
But an Auckland angel must have been on the Kiwi’s shoulder as he powered the #6 PNC Bank Honda to a top-five finish and an overall plus-three in points on Rossi for the day. It’s that blend of technique and fortune that could result in Dixon’s fifth series championship this weekend with a podium finish.
“Well, I think we were a bit lucky in Portland and you’ve got to take those days,” he said. “We’ll try to have the fastest car we can prepare, qualify where we can and put our heads down. That’s what we can do. Everyone on the PNC Bank team has been focused and working hard and we’ll just keep pushing like we have been all season and see what happens.”
Rossi, who finished eighth in Portland, which snapped a streak of three straight podium finishes, seeks his first-ever IndyCar title. The California native has three wins on the season and has not been afraid to take risks with the #28 NAPA Auto Parts Honda in order to slice the gap on Dixon’s lead.
“It’s crazy to think that we are already at the end of the season,” Rossi assessed. “2018 has been a great year for many reasons and I am excited to be able to close it out at my home track in front of an always large group of family and friends. We have had some really strong pace in the second half of the year, so we will be looking to execute the same thing this weekend.”
Tied for third, but sitting 81 points off pace, Team Penske entrants Will Power and Josef Newgarden are both mathematically eligible to claim a championship due to the “double points” scenario but the task might be difficult with the consistent and quality finishes that Dixon and Rossi have achieved this season.
However, both are familiar to titles as the former was the 2014 series victor and the latter is the current defending champion.
“We’ll need a lot of luck on our side, but it’s still something we can achieve,” Power said. “We’ve had a season that was a bit all over the place. The No. 12 Verizon Chevy team has worked so hard this season, but we need to keep at it for a run at the championship. We want to do everything we can to really put on a really good show for the last race of the season and give it all we got.”
“It’s been a very up-and-down season, but we’re ready to do everything we can to make a run at the championship,” Newgarden. “Some races have gone our way and some have not, but we’re going to forget about all that and put a strong effort forward with the No. 1 Verizon Chevrolet. Sonoma is a really fun racetrack.”
It’s also been fun for the other drivers that have claimed past victories at the track that, in bittersweet fashion, will not be a part of the 2019 Verizon Indycar schedule.
“It’s a really great road course with a lot to do locally for race fans and people working in the series, so I know we’re all going to miss it,” said 2016 winner Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske). “I’m looking forward to giving our last race there my all.”
“Sonoma is such a cool place to drive,” said A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ Tony Kanaan, who claimed the checkered flags there in 2005 and seeks his 300th IndyCar start this Sunday. “It’s fast, technical and full of elevation changes. When you put all of that together, it makes for a pretty challenging track. You know it always has a great crowd, great fans and an awesome atmosphere overall.”
Likewise, the rookies can’t wait for the green flag to drop.
“Sonoma is a place that I’ve never raced before but grew up playing video games there and thinking about racing in that place one day,” said Matheus Leist (A.J. Foyt Enterprises). “It’s such a pretty city and a fun track to drive.”
“I honestly couldn’t be more excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race,” added Patricio O’Ward of Harding Racing. “It’s going to be my debut, and I was really, really satisfied and happy with the testing, so I’m looking forward to the weekend.”
Sunday’s coverage on NBC Sports Network begins at 5:30 pm.
Last week, the Verizon IndyCar Series revealed the 2019 schedule. The 17-race docket includes the return of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park on Saturday, August 24, 2019.
Two events from this season’s series, the aforementioned Sonoma Raceway race and April’s Phoenix event at ISM Speedway, would not return. Added were a March 2019 event at the Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin, Texas and a September 2019 event at Leguna Seca in Monterrey, California.
The dual races at Indianapolis and Detroit, as well as solo events at Mid-Ohio and Iowa also made the IndyCar list.