Thursday, August 23, 2012

10 Stories For The GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma

Now that IndyCar is ready to get back on the track, it's time for another installment of 10 stories to follow for this weekend's GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. If you've slumbered a bit since Mid-Ohio, never fear; we're here to get you back in the swing of things.

1) One Big Championship Fight
Going into Sonoma, there are four main legitimate contenders remaining for this year's IZOD IndyCar Series title. Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves, and Scott Dixon are separated by a mere 28 total points. It is no exaggeration to say that a single poor race can doom the title hopes of a driver. Qualifying, and every position on track, will matter in a big way.

2) Two Returning Faces 
The car count gets a boost this weekend as Sebastian Saavedra and Katherine Legge both return to the track: Saavedra in the #17 AFS/Andretti machine, and Legge back in the #6 TrueCar Dragon racing ride. Neither driver has had the season they'd hoped for (Legge in IndyCar, Saavedra mostly in Lights), so this will be another chance for each of them to make a good impression.

How will they do? Saavedra is still learning. He's 22 years old--I look at this as much like a major league callup late in the season, to use a baseball analogy. Just get out there, give a decent accounting of yourself, and get some more experience. For Legge, we forget that she has far more road course experience than she does oval experience. This will be her first twisty in a Chevy, so it might be a better measure of where she is right now.

3) Three Point Five For Push To Pass
After middling reviews for the push-to-pass system from Mid-Ohio, IndyCar is again tinkering with the formula for this weekend's race. The delay on PtP kicking in after being pushed in now 3.5 seconds, with 90 seconds total allowed for drivers. No more than 15 seconds in one spurt may be used. Will it do anything to enhance passing at Sonoma? We'll have to see.

4) Four Engine Change Penalties (So Far)
As of now, four drivers will be serving 10-spot engine penalties at Sonoma: Justin Wilson, Takuma Sato, Sebastian Saavedra, and Simona de Silvestro. There's never a good race for an engine change penalty, but Sonoma might be among the worst for it. Watch for the list to grow after Friday and Saturday's practice, as it usually does.

5) Five Livery Changes To Note
If you haven't seen JR Hildebrand's San Francisco 49ers livery, it's worth checking out. Other changes include Oriol Servia in the TransSystems livery, complete with Salvador Dali on the sidepod; Tony Kanaan with Mouser Electronics as the primary sponsor this week; additionally, Josef Newgarden welcomes Angie's List back on the #67 this week. Sebastien Bourdais will be back in the TrueCar livery, which should match teammate Katherine Legge's.

6) Six In A Row For The Ganassi/Penske Bloc?
Dating back to 2007, either Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske's boys have won this race each and every year, for five straight victories. Penske and Will Power have specifically dominated since 2010, with Power leading a Penske podium sweep last year. With so much on the line, if the Penskes or Ganassis have another field day Sunday, it could shake things up in a big way. Ryan Hunter-Reay will have his work cut out for him, to say the least.

The Penskes conducted a Sonoma sweep last year.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
7) Turn 7, and Other Sonoma Changes
Admittedly, Sonoma hasn't usually been a barn-burner of a course. Still, with Turns 7, 9, and 11 having been tweaked or moved, the early response from drivers seem to suggest we may be in for more passing opportunities come Sunday.

Let's take this opportunity to admit it: Sonoma hasn't always been the most pass-happy of tracks--far from it, really. But we've said that of other tracks this year, and between a fresh Firestone tire compound, the workings of the DW12, and a closely matched driver talent, there very well could be much more passing on Sunday than in previous years.

8) Welcome Back, #83
Charlie Kimball missed Mid-Ohio with his right hand injury, but he's back in the saddle once again for Sonoma. We'll see how he does in his return. I have to say Kimball has definitely grown on me with his performance this year. He's still a work in progress and still learning (as I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you), but he's had some very good races this season. Besides, I'm for any IndyCar driver getting that much sponsor activation.

9) Sponsors On Cloud Nine
A lot people ask why IndyCar goes to Sonoma. If you want the most direct answer, it is simply this: the sponsors love it. Going to Sonoma Wine Country, where they can wine and dine clients in style, continues to be a big sell to sponsors. So long as that's the case, you can expect this course to stick around. Keep your ear to the ground this weekend, and you'll hear plenty about how happy the sponsors are to be in Sonoma this weekend.

10) The Top 10 Drought Continues
You’re right; I didn’t forget. Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden each continue that search for at least a single Top 10 finish this season. It would be great to see Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing end the season with a string of good results, but right now, I believe most fans would settle for one good, start-to-finish, powerful Top 10 run. We know they can do it; it's just a matter of everything coming together for it.

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