Last year, midway through the 2013 IndyCar Series season, IndyCar head honcho Mark Miles vowed that as part of his plan to rejuvenate the sport of American open wheel racing, he would see to it that the IndyCar Series schedule would be chopped, screwed and condensed in an effort to raise week-to-week excitement and avoid late season competition with sporting juggernauts like the NFL and NASCAR.
His plan has worked thus far: ratings are up nearly 98 percent (!!!) for the series on the NBC Sports Network, and for the first time in a very long time, there is a general sense that the sport has finally turned a corner.
Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks (and admittedly, it’s not really that much of a drawback) of Miles’ schedule shuffle is that the season will be ending much earlier than in years past. Indeed, this weekend’s race in Sonoma is the penultimate race of the season, and it seems crazy to think that the season will be over in just a little over a week and a half from today, Aug. 22.
IndyCar faithful will have to wait quite a while to see their favorite drivers and teams take to the track again, but ultimately, it is for the best.
On to Sonoma we go.
The biggest story at this stage of the season is obviously the championship battle. Will Power surprised everyone earlier this week by utterly dominating the race in Milwaukee, a track that many thought he would struggle at. While Power flourished, his chief rival in the championship battle, Helio Castroneves, faltered. Castroneves was off the pace nearly all race long and came home with a paltry 11th-place finish. Power ended up walking away from the race with a 39-point lead in the points standings.
Of course, with two races still looming ahead, one being a double-points event in Fontana, the title is still very much up for grabs, and until the champion is crowned, it will be the biggest story in the IndyCar Series.
The beautiful hills of California’s Napa Valley are the sight of this week’s race, as the series will take on the fast and windy Sonoma Raceway. Many are probably familiar with the NASCAR version of Sonoma’s circuit. INDYCAR, however, uses a different version of the circuit, one that is longer and more technical. The track features 11 turns, two of which are taken at extremely low speed and thus act as great passing zones.
Sonoma is one of the more competitive road courses that the series visits, so one can expect a fair amount of passing on Sunday.
What’s the Points? Drivers
Power is the series point leader and possesses a 39-point advantage over Castroneves. Simon Pagenaud is third in the standings, 53 markers behind Castroneves, and stands as the last driver with a realistic shot at the title. Rounding out the top 5 in the series standings are Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya.
What’s the Points? Manufacturers
Nothing to see here. Chevy essentially clinched the manufacturer’s title a few weeks ago courtesy of a nearly 2-to-1 advantage over Honda in the manufacturer’s points race.
Driver to Watch
Will Power is the driver to watch on Sunday.
Yes, I know that is the easy cop-out pick, but come on, the dude has just been money at this track since he entered the circuit. He has won three out of the last four races at Sonoma and is entering the race with more momentum than he has ever had this late in the season. If he isn’t the driver to watch I’m not sure who could be.
Not much going on in this department this week. One interesting story that surfaced this week came courtesy of NBC Sports Network, who announced that Sam Hornish, Jr. will be in the booth this weekend to call the Verizon IndyCar Series race in Sonoma. Could it be a sign that Hornish is transitioning into a future role as a commentator?
Who Ya Got?
Toni Montgomery has pegged Will Power as her pick to win this weekend in Sonoma. I am also picking Power, as he has simply been too good for too long at Sonoma to lose on a weekend where he has so much momentum going in.
As for our third IndyCar expert, Huston Ladner, he has drafted Juan Pablo Montoya as his pick to win.
The series finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., will be the next and final stop for the Verizon IndyCar Series. That race will be held on Saturday, Aug. 30th, and will be covered live by NBC Sports Network with coverage beginning at 9 p.m. EST. The race can also be found on Sirius 213 and XM 209 for radio listeners.
Frontstretch IndyCar writer Huston Ladner is at the track to bring you live coverage this weekend! Be sure to follow the action on the @Frontstretch Twitter feed!