IndyCar’s championship will be decided at next Saturday night’s season-closing 500-mile race at the high-banked California Speedway and no fewer than five drivers have a mathematical chance of winning the title. Each of Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud kept their remote championship hopes alive by finishing 1-2-3 at California’s Sonoma Raceway road course on Sunday but championship leader Will Power remains in the driver’s seat with a 51-point lead despite finishing no better than 10th at Sonoma.
Power qualified on pole at Sonoma and ran away from the field through the race’s first half only to spin while running in heavy traffic following a round of mid-race pitstops. He eventually made it home in 10th place while primary championship rival and team-mate Hélio Castroneves survived a couple of incidents of his own to scrape home 18th.
Meanwhile, Dixon drove another smart race once again getting better fuel mileage than most of his rivals so that he was in position to pounce in the closing laps. Dixon attacked and passed Mike Conway to take the lead with only two laps to go and pushed on to score his second win of the year and the 35th of his career, moving into a tie for fifth place with Bobby Unser on IndyCar’s all-time winners list.
“It was tough,” Dixon said. “There were so many strategies going on and we were just slightly off. I didn’t know who could make it without stopping and who couldn’t. Conway pushed hard but obviously at the end he had to save some fuel.
“I’m so excited. This is big for our team. We’ve had a pretty rats year so far but our strategy was perfect. I’m so happy. I’ve been a little under the weather all weekend but some people do better in those circumstances. We were close all weekend and I’m just so happy to end on this note.”
Mike Conway led 20 laps in the middle of the race and tried to stretch his fuel at the end only to run out of fuel on the final lap. Conway was able to coast across the line but fell to 14th at the finish.
“I was doing all I could to keep those guys behind,” Conway said. “I was trying to save a lot of fuel but not let them catch me. It was tricky but I was making a good job of it and hitting my numbers. I thought it would be good but as we got through turn 10 on the last lap it just died and then picked up again and then completely shut off coming out of the last corner. Annoying, but it nearly worked. We needed just another 100 meters.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay drove a strong race to come from 10th on the grid to finish second, his best result since winning at Iowa six weeks ago. “We had a really good car so I was able to move through traffic when I needed to do,” Hunter-Reay remarked. “But for some reason we missed the pressures on that last set of tyres. We had an imbalance and I burned the rear tyres off at the end so we had nothing for Scott. But we passed the cars we needed to.
IndyCar Top 10
1. Will Power, Penske 626
2. Hélio Castroneves, Penske 575
3. Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Peterson 545
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti 534
5. Scott Dixon, Ganassi 523
6. Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske 519
7. Tony Kanaan, Ganassi 443
8. Sébastien Bourdais, KVR 437
9. Carlos Muñoz, Andretti 435
10. Marco Andretti, Andretti 424
“Unfortunately, second is not what we needed. The guys did a great job in the pitlane. It was great team effort today but when you have the championship on the line we needed Will to have some trouble and we needed to win today.”
Simon Pagenaud came from even deeper in the field – 15th on the grid – to finish third. “I lost a lot of positions on the first lap when Hinch spun, but at least the car was in one piece,” Pagenaud observed. “I was a little frustrated at that point because Sonoma is such a hard track to pass on. We made the race in the pits really. The pitstops were awesome and our out-laps and in-laps were really good. That’s what made us jump so many positions.
“Our strategy was a bit frustrating. It was very tough for me because I had to save so much fuel but we made it past Conway on the last corner and third is just fantastic. I never thought we would be third so I’m delighted and we’re going to Fontana with a chance to win the title.”
Pagenaud is third in points, 81 behind championship leader Power. “We had such a fast car but that’s how Indycar racing goes,” Power commented. “We were looking good then we lost a lot of points but we’ll go to Fontana and see what we can do. We’ll be head down, just like we have been.”
Power said he was caught unaware when he spun amid heavy traffic. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he groaned. “It was such a shock, such a surprise. I had someone outside me. It was so tight with the car on the outside. I kept my hand off the clutch and just kept it spinning. I thought I’d do a few celebratory doughnuts just to put on a show for the youngsters. But that’s racing.”
The Australian came through the last corner on the final lap three-wide with Justin Wilson on the inside and Sébastien Bourdais on the outside. In fact, Bourdais’ race ended in the wall as Power squeezed the Frenchman into the barrier as they crossed the line.
“I was going for points and it looked like an easy target because Justin was very much struggling,” Power said. “But man! It ripped the wheel out of my hands and I punched the push-to-pass at the last minute. I thought being three wide, this is going to be really interesting. I couldn’t believe I actually got him. That was a hairy last corner. I saw the opportunity and I just went for it. I wanted to get the points.”
And then there was Graham Rahal, who led the race for 18 laps from lap 61-83. Rahal was hoping to score his first win in six years but had to come in for a splash of fuel with two laps remaining and finished a distant 20th.
“I thought we were dominant,” Rahal said. “When we had to pass people I could go right by them. They told me the fuel number we needed and I was running a yellow map, which is way down on boost, but I was getting the numbers I needed to do. But then the fuel light came on and I had to stop.”
In three of the last four years Power has thrown away his championship hopes at the final race. This year he’s in control of the championship but showed yet again at Sonoma that he’s entirely capable of making a dog’s breakfast of a dominant day. Can Power put it all together next weekend or will he make another mistake or two and allow team-mate Castroneves or long shots Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay or Dixon to catch and pass him at the 11th hour?
It was great to see Memo Gidley at Sonoma. Seven months after his terrible accident in this year’s Daytona 24 Hours Gidley was out and about in public for the first time and it’s a pleasure to report that he couldn’t have looked better. Memo enjoyed himself, walking the paddock, talking to many old friends and discussing his vigorous rehabilitation programme. Gidley says he’s been spending a lot of time in pool, swimming hard, and said he hopes to be back behind the wheel in another six months.