GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma Preview

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Following a season of twists and turns, everything comes down to this weekend in California at Sonoma Raceway and the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. The last trophy of the season will be given out while someone is crowned as the series champion.

Entering the weekend, Simon Pagenaud sits 43 points ahead of Will Power, looking to win his first career championship while Power is looking for his second.

Pagenaud enters this weekend coming off a seventh place finish at Watkins Glen, hoping to find victory lane for the first time at the California-based road course. In five previous starts, the French driver has three top-10s, with a best finish of third in 2013.

“I’m looking forward to getting to Sonoma,” he said. “This is our big season finale, and I’m very excited to get to battle it out on the track. It’s a place where I’ve done pretty well in the past, and I was very pleased with our test last week in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet. Obviously, this weekend is going to be intense regarding the driver championship, and I’m very proud with our result in Watkins Glen that we could bring the team championship in this special 50th season to Team Penske.”

In contrast, Power enters this weekend after crashing out of the event at Watkins Glen following contact with a fellow competitor. He knows what it takes to get around Sonoma Raceway, having visited victory lane three times and boasts the second-best average finish among active drivers. In his five most recent starts at Sonoma, he has posted a top-10 finish, including four podiums.

“It’s been a wild season,” Power said. “The No. 12 Verizon Chevy team didn’t have the best start even beyond the stuff at St. Petersburg (which Power missed with an inner-ear infection). We got it together, though, and being in a position to win the championship is awesome. The fact that it’s going to be a Team Penske championship is great, too. We all set out to win for ourselves and the team, so to be able to deliver a championship for Roger (Penske) in this special 50th season is special.”
While these pair are looking for championship glory, the rest of the field is looking to end the year with a trophy.

A victory would be huge for Juan Pablo Montoya as he hasn’t had the year he intended, suffering bad luck in the form of wrecks and mechanical issues at multiple times this season. This weekend presents a great opportunity as he has finished fifth and sixth in his previous two starts on the 2.385-mile permanent road course.

“Sonoma is a great place to close out the season,” Montoya said. “The track is challenging and competitive. It’s a place that really displays what the cars are capable of. We’ll have the hum by Verizon Chevy this weekend, and I’m really excited about it. This season didn’t play out the way we wanted, but at the end of the day, it is a championship season for Team Penske. A championship for our team was the primary goal, obviously, but getting one for the team is just behind that.”

Before the recent success of Scott Dixon and Power at Sonoma, it was Helio Castroneves picking up the victory in 2008. Since then, the Brazilian has posted four top-10s including a runner-up. Notably, though, the top-10s haven’t come in his most recent two starts.

“The championship is not available for us, but there is still plenty to race for,” Castroneves said. “Final points position is still up in the air, as is winning the race. The No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet team has been tenacious all season long, and we’ll finish strong. Sonoma is a track that we’re very familiar with. It’s very challenging, and we’ve had good results there. I don’t think our finishes there the last couple of years is representative of the car we had. I’m definitely looking forward to getting out there and closing out the season on a strong note.”

Speaking of Dixon, he hopes to spoil Team Penske’s party at the front with another victory to victory lane. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver visited victory lane last season at Sonoma en route to the championship and enters this weekend with momentum as he dominated last weekend at Watkins Glen. In 11 starts in California, he has three wins – including winning the last two, six top-fives and seven top-10s.

“Sonoma is very hard to beat as a venue,” Dixon said. “You really have it all there. Flying into San Francisco, wine country, the Sonoma downtown area – what more can you ask for? It’s a huge event for our partners as well, with Target bringing hundreds of guests to attend the race and cheer us on. They come for the racing and the wine, so it’s an easy sell for the team. The track itself has the elevation changes and the flowing corners, and it proved to put on a great show for the championship finale last season.”

After a trying year including a hand injury, Josef Newgarden wants to end the season on a high with his second victory of the year. It’s worth nothing, though, that he only has one finish inside the top-20 – sixth in 2014 – in four starts at Sonoma.

“I’m excited to get back to Sonoma Raceway; it’s great to race there for the finale,” he said. “We’ve had an awesome season with the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka car and we’re looking to finish things off right. Sonoma’s been good to us the last couple of years with starting on the front row after the last two qualifying sessions there. We need to try and replicate that, then have a good, strong finish and see where that puts us in the championship.”

Mikhail Aleshin has surprised people this year in his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series, notably scoring three top-fives this year with a runner-up at Pocono Raceway. It’d be great to see the Russian end the season on the podium, after posting finishes of seventh and 10th in his first two trips to Sonoma.

“It’s going to be great to be back at Sonoma Raceway because I really enjoy that track,” he said. “I have a lot of good memories from races I’ve done there, and I’ll do my best to have another good finish for the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale. The SPM team has had some good momentum in the second half of the season so I hope we can put the No. 7 SMP Racing car up front to finish where we deserve to be.”

Conor Daly has made headlines this year, scoring top-five finishes with one of the underfunded teams, Dale Coyne Racing. The right strategy and a solid car could lead Daly to an impressive cap off on the year, despite this being his first trip to Sonoma.

“The Sonoma race is a big weekend with double points, so it was nice to have a test day before that,” he said. “We have more information than we did previously and information is key. I’ve never raced there before, so I learned a lot about the track; it was another new experience for me. It’s a cool place, for sure. It’s a great area and a great racetrack. The whole thing is interesting and presents challenges. It’s sort of low grip for a road course, but I really enjoyed it. It’s the last race of the season, and we have to do the best we can. It would be nice to close out the season with a win. Obviously, we’ve been close.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularopenwheel.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularOpenWheel.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

Ashley McCubbin is currently studying journalism at the University of Guelph-Humber while writing for multiple websites. She also serves on the managing staff for a select few. Born in North York, Ontario, McCubbin currently lives in Bradford, Ontario and spends her weekend at the local short tracks in the area where she enjoys taking photos and working on websites.

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