Sizing Up IndyCar Championship Finalists Chances For Sonoma

We’re down to the season finale of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. With that being said, six drivers head to Sonoma with a shot of hoisting this year’s Astor Cup championship trophy after Sunday’s Go Pro Indy Grand Prix (6:30 p.m. ET/NBCSN/INDYCAR Radio Network). But, who has the best shot at winning this year’s championship?

Currently, all five of the major drivers to win the title on Sunday will start in the top six. So, lets start with Josef Newgarden.

In his first year with Penske, Newgarden has shined. He currently leads the points standings over Scott Dixon by just four points. His 2017 season started out of the gates hot with one win, two total podiums and four top 10 finishes in his first four races with the team. After a rough Month of May at Indy that saw him finish 11th and 19th respectively, he’s had just two finishes outside the top 10 in the 10 races since. In fact, out of those 10 races, he has had three wins, six podiums and eight top six finishes. He’s also had four top two efforts in his last five races.

But, what about natural road courses like Sonoma this season?

Josef Newgarden during Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Glen

Newgarden, has had finishes of first, 11th, second, first and 18th respectively on natural road courses in 2017. At Sonoma though, he’s made five starts in wine country with zero top five finishes. Does being with Penske now change that, or does he leave the door open for someone like Dixon?

Scott Dixon practicing this weekend at Watkins Glen

Dixon, despite being with Honda power has surprisingly stayed in the hunt all year long. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has had 10 straight top 10 finishes and 15 of them in 16 races this year. Yes, he has just one win in 2017, but he has been consistently up front. He’s also excelled on natural road courses in 2017 too, with finishes of second, second, first, ninth and second respectively. At Sonoma, he has three victories in 12 career starts, including two of the last three years. In 2015, he entered the weekend 34 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya, who also drove the No. 2 Chevrolet for Penske, and he not only won the race, but he won the championship too in the process.

So, can he pick up his second win of the season? Stats say yes.

What about Helio Castroneves? He too is in striking distance as he trails Newgarden by 23 markers heading to the season finale. The Brazilian has never won a championship in IndyCar before and knows this may be his last chance. He ended his three-year long winless drought in dominating fashion at Iowa back in July and has also finished in the top 10 in every race but one. But, here he is third in the standings. How?

It’s all about the lack of wins and podiums is how.

Helio Castroneves last season at Watkins Glen

He’s made 12 career Sonoma starts, but has had just one victory on the northern California road course. His results at Sonoma are really like his results during the season, solid, but not spectacular. In those 12 Sonoma starts, he’s finished in the top 10 in eight of them. But, he has just five top fives. In 16 starts this season, he has 14 top 10’s, but just seven top fives.

He has to be overly aggressive if he wants any shot at a title this weekend.

We all know the third Penske member in Simon Pagenaud has what it takes to win a championship. After all, he’s the defending series champion and started on the pole and won the race at Sonoma last year. But, this year he needs to do that again and hope for some help. He currently trails by 35 points and has had top 10’s in all but two races in 2017. The Frenchman has also completed every lap of the season too. Only one other driver has ever done that in the history of the sport. But, he’s sitting too far out to realistically strike gold at Sonoma despite having nine straight top 10 finishes on the season. Seven of those eight have been in the top five too.

In fact, he’s had 12 top fives all year, three more than anyone else and here he is that far back. At Sonoma, he’s had four top 10’s and three top fives in six career starts. He’s led 76 laps too. On natural road courses, he has finishes this season of third, fourth, fourth, fourth and ninth respectively. He’s going to have a shot, but he needs some help.

Will Power at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Friday

Will Power can honestly win this weekend, in fact he’s likely a favorite to do so, but like Pagenaud, he needs a lot of help if he wants to win the championship. Power, is 69 points out and that really means he needs everyone in front of him currently in the standings to finish 18th on back while he wins too. Likely? No. But, anything is possible.

Prior to Gateway, it looked like we were going to see another Will Power dominating end to an IndyCar season though. From the second Belle Isle race through Mid-Ohio, Power had six top fives in seven races. Two of those were wins, both on superspeedways at that. But, after earning a pole at Gateway, he crashed on the first green flag lap and came home 20th. That really ruined any title hopes. But, he’s still eligible.

This season, Power has three wins and six podiums, but he has just nine top 10’s. Compare that to Newgarden’s 12, Dixon’s 15, Castroneves’ 15 and Pagenaud’s 14 and you can see why he’s where he is at in the points standings despite those three trips to victory lane.

At Sonoma, Power has three wins and six top 10’s in eight starts. He’s led 276 laps there and a threat for not just the pole but the win too. On natural road courses this season, Power has finished 14th, first, fifth, second and sixth respectively. Unfortunately, the drivers in front can points race while he Power has to win and hope they fall out of contention. Not likely.

Graham Rahal during last year’s road course race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Graham Rahal is one of the only non Penske or Ganassi driver in here but realistically he’s out of it. He’s like Power where once the green flag drops, his chances of winning the title are honestly gone. But, after a miserable start to the season that saw him 17th in points heading to Indy, Rahal has surged to being in the hunt once again and he can hang his hat on that. In the 12 races since that first lap crash at Phoenix, he’s had 10 top 10 finishes, including two wins. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to gain on the Penske’s and Dixon as he’s in a fight to be next in class again.

Rahal, has 11 top 10’s this season and led 110 laps, it hasn’t been enough. At Sonoma, he finished second last year and has five top 10 finishes in nine starts. I think he can win, but I don’t think it will be enough.

On natural road courses, Rahal has finishes of 13th, sixth, eighth, third and fifth respectively. He just hasn’t had the car to win on these tracks like he’s had in the past. He’s been solid but not contending like normal.

Alexander Rossi in practice on Friday

Alexander Rossi will have a shot to win again too, as he’s had five straight top six finishes on the season. He led 32 of the 60 laps from the pole en route to a win the last time out at Watkins Glen. In fact, three of his last five finishes have resulted on the podium. He came home fifth last year at Sonoma, so he will have a shot at another win. Unfortunately, he’s 84 points out.

So, this title race to me is really between Newgarden and Dixon. Newgarden, has never been here before but he’s been great over the last three months of the season and phenomenal on natural road courses this year. But, he lacks experience in this situation where Dixon has shined. We all know the Ice Man won’t be rattled this weekend and will embrace being the hunter instead of the hunted. He won’t put his tires off track and will just run his line and take what he can get. He won’t be pushing.

But, Penske holds the top four spots of the starting lineup and has been by far the superior team. The best it appears Dixon can do is finish fifth.

That makes this Penske’s title to lose.

 

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