The season finale is already here. On Sunday evening at the Sonoma Raceway, we will crown a 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series champion. But, whom among the four eligible drivers will it be?
Currently, Scott Dixon leads Alexander Rossi by 29 points. Will Power and Josef Newgarden and tied for third, but they’re 87 points back. We can practically eliminate them because the only shot that either Penske driver has at hoisting the Astor Cup championship trophy after Sunday’s race is to win and also hope that both Dixon and Rossi finish outside of the top 20.
Newsflash, that’s not likely to happen.
Dixon, hasn’t finished worse than 12th all year and other than his crash in last year’s Indy 500, he’s finished in the top 12 in 32 of his last 33 INDYCAR starts. Plus, his worst career finish at Sonoma is 17th.
Rossi, hasn’t finished worse than 16th all year as his last finish outside the top 20 was actually in Sonoma in last year’s season finale.
So lets just go ahead and make this about Dixon vs. Rossi here. While I do fully believe a Penske driver can win Sunday’s race, I don’t think they’re winning the title. Despite that, I do think that they will have a hand in who does win the championship.
Winning the title is normally determined in qualifying at Sonoma. In the last 13 years, the worst starting spot of a race winner in Sonoma was ninth. 12 of the 13 races have seen the winner come from a top five starting spot while 11 from the top three. To add to that, 10 of the 16 races this year were won from a starter from the first 2 Rows. Among the six races that a winner came from outside of the top four, three were on ovals and one was at Portland where the race was flipped.
Furthermore, four of the five races run on natural road courses this year were won by the pole sitter.
That’s why I feel a Penske driver will likely win Sunday’s race.
Penske has won six of the last eight races in Sonoma. Their drivers always qualifying well there too. They’ve also qualified well this season in general.
Will Power has to be the pole favorite. In five of his nine Sonoma starts, he’s earned the Verizon P1 Pole Award. I know some of you may be reading this and wondering, how in the world did we get from this being between Dixon and Rossi and we’ve taken a turn down the Penske road? Again, follow along here, you’ll see how this all ties in together.
Power, hasn’t started worse than sixth all year and heads into this weekend with nine straight top four starting spots. On natural road courses, Power has started on the front row in all five of them this season and has started on the front row for 10 straight races on natural road courses and 12 of the last 13. He’s never started worse than fourth in Sonoma.
He’s my pole pick for those reasons.
His teammate Newgardden has eight straight top four qualifying spots on the season and four top four starting spots in five tries on natural road courses in 2018. He’s started on the pole twice and dominated both races (Barber, Road America). In Sonoma, Newgarden has three front row starting spots in his last four tries.
He’s my second place starter.
The third Penske driver in Simon Pagenaud has won this race each of the last two years and enters with nine straight top 10 finishes on the season.
Remember how I said that starting position matters in Sonoma? Remember how I said four of the five races on natural road courses this year has seen the pole sitter win? I can make a valid case for all three Penske drivers to make the Firestone Fast Six. All but once has the winner come from the Fast Six in wine country. Pagenaud, has two straight wins there and three podiums in his last four Sonoma starts. Newgarden, came home runner-up last year and Power has five podiums in his last eight Sonoma starts.
I think one of these three drivers closes out the year with a victory. I mean, trends and stats lean heavily that way.
That in turn affects how Rossi and Dixon do. The Penske trio could be stealing valuable points for Rossi. If he wins the race, then he can win the title as long as Dixon doesn’t finish second. But, can he win the race?
Rossi’s average starting position on the season is 6.3. On natural road courses, his average starting spot is 4.8. He’s started fourth, first and third respectively the last three starts on them. He also started eighth in each of the last two years in Sonoma and coincidentally enough, his first two starts on natural road courses in 2018 were…eighth.
Trends say he will start eighth but I think he makes his way into the Fast Six and starts in Row 2. Rossi, has led 98 combined laps in each of the last two natural road courses but has just two top five finishes in five tries this season. He’s finished fifth and 21st respectively in his two starts at Sonoma. If the Penske’s take three of the top five starting spots as well as the finishing positions and you take Rossi’s past stats at Sonoma and natural road courses in 2018 in general, I think he finishes fourth through seventh.
Dixon, well he’s struggled qualifying on natural road courses this year. In fact, he’s struggled in qualifying in general. His average starting spot for the year is 7.9. But, on natural road courses, his average starting spot is 10.4. Look at his last four starts on natural road courses.
18th, eighth, ninth and 11th respectively. His last four starts on the season are ninth, 13th, first (rain out) and 11th respectively.
In Sonoma, he’s never started outside of the top 10, so where I don’t think he makes the Fast Six, I do think he starts in the eighth through 10th range.
He’s won this race twice in the last four years, but since 2011, those are his only two podiums on the northern California road course. He’s also finished 13th or worse in three of his last six Sonoma starts too.
But, in 2018, he’s always turned those bad starts into top six finishes and I think that he will do so again on Sunday. He’s likely a fourth through sixth place finisher this weekend. So is Rossi.
That leads to games being played. Do either Rossi or Dixon play the strategy game to avoid being caught out by a yellow like last the last race in Portland? Luckily for them, Sonoma doesn’t breed a lot of yellows anyways. There has been one total caution the last two years combined. Last year’s race went caution free. Two of the last three natural road course races on the season went caution free too. We only saw two cautions fly at each at Barber and Indy.
Trends say we will see between zero and two cautions fly.
So, strategy is out the window and qualifying will determine who likely contends for the win.
That’s why the Penske’s should dominate and Rossi and Dixon are racing for fourth on back.
My money is on Dixon then.