This has been a season where races have turned everything topsy-turvey and the season finale at Sonoma Raceway has been no exception.
The practice sessions showed that everyone was working on the set up and the fresh rookies were not playing around. By practice session two there were three rookies in the top ten, including Patricio O’Ward (on his INDYCAR debut). The times also continued to get closer between the drivers. By practice session three, the difference between P1 (Dixon) and P2 (Power) was 0.0096, I’m not even sure how to quantify that time difference: it’s much quicker then a sneeze and maybe even a blink!
Poor Josef Newgarden. Early in the week, Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power spent the day doing promotional activities in San Francisco. I don’t want to blame the seafood…but they have very good lobster rolls down on Pier 39 and that’s probable what did him in. It was announced during practice session 1 that Newgarden had food poisoning, and his car was having mechanical difficulties. Following that, in practice session two Newgarden did what he always does and came in P1.
Qualifications turned into a gamble on the championship leaders and rookies. It paid off for Patricio O’Ward in his first INDYCAR series debut he made it all the way into the Fast Six and will start in P5. What’s even more impressive for the rookie is he went P1 in his section while on the Firestone Blacks and not the alternative Reds. As far as tire management, O’Ward has the beginnings of a great driver. He made a few rookie-esq mistakes during his qualifying attempts, but that he is starting P5 in his first race, it’s going to be great for him. You could tell in the post-race interviews he was happy. After getting into the Firestone Fast 6, O’Ward put in a few laps and then pulled the car in, he and the team happy with his efforts.
It looked like it was going to be Scott Dixon for the pole. With Dixon and RHR out on the track, Dixon laid down a flyer. The announcers, and us watching, gave the pole bonus point for Dixon. Even more amazing was after laying down a few laps, Rossi peeled into pit lane. Then out of nowhere Ryan Hunter-Reay decides to nab his first pole of the season and snatch the bonus point away from Scott Dixon. Then all realize that Rossi set up a long game and has a full set of Firestone Reds untouched for the race. Rossi is playing the game of tire management, and it is going to be masterful to watch.
After qualifying, the points are the same. It’s Scott Dixon v. Alexander Rossi.
In the end, the championship belonged to Scott Dixon and the race to Ryan Hunter-Reay. From mid-season on everyone knew the only way Dixon got beat out of the championship, was if Dixon had a bad race. Dixon never has a bad race. Sonoma was no exception to that rule. In fact it was Rossi who had the bad race. Contact with fellow Andretti Autosport teammate Marco forced Rossi to pit on the first lap. The championship contender saw a broken front wing and damage to his tire. He fell all the way to the end of the field by the start of Lap 2.
Rossi did Rossi things, and like we have seen all season, if he gets shuffled to the back of the pack, he will make moves. He ended up in the seventh position at the end of the race. Tack on an additional five laps and he would have been top 5 for sure.
O’Ward showed up in a big way during the race. He finished as the highest placing rookie, and a top ten finish for his first time in an INDYCAR race. Did he have some problems with the car: yes. Remember this was his first time in an INDYCAR for a very long race in a season where the cars have been a handful to even veteran drivers.
It’s unfortunate that Ryan Hunter-Reay’s run is overshadowed by Dixon. RHR had a good solid race, he led eighty out of eighty-five laps. He and Dixon often pitted at the same time, and his team was quick and proficient seeming to always beat the Wolf Pack. That’s RHR’s career though isn’t it? Solid performance, but somehow blending in.
Congratulations to Scott Dixon. Five championships is an incredible milestone. He is, without a doubt, the driver of this generation!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments. We’ll have our Race Report episode drop on Wednesday and then the unpacking of the 2018 season starts.