The end of the IndyCar season is a bit rough on fans, with a few gaps between the action that make a race weekend seem a rare occasion indeed. Now, we’re looking at back-to-back race weekends at Baltimore and Sonoma, where the course of this year’s championship may well be decided for the remaining contenders. Let's check out some of the big storylines for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 4pm ET, NBC Sports):
Quals Matter: Sonoma is a track where qualifying position is huge when it comes to the race itself. Don’t believe me? Not only did last year’s winner, Ryan Briscoe, start P2 on the grid, but 2011 winner Will Power started on the pole. Here’s the big proof, though: going back to 2008, only 1 driver has finished on the podium after starting outside the first 3 rows. Watch your Firestone Fast 6, because at Sonoma as much as anywhere, that’s probably the pool your winner will be drawn from.
Test, 1,2: Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon continued their late-season renaissance by topping the Sonoma test this week, with Ryan Hunter-Reay right behind them. Dario’s really out of the title discussion, but Dixon and RHR are still chasing Helio Castroneves for the points lead. No driver can really afford an off weekend at this point in the season, so Dixie and Hunter-Reay had better hope they are just as on point for the race weekend.
New(ish) Faces: Sarah Fisher Racing welcomes Lucas Luhr to his IndyCar debut this week, as the experienced Le Mans driver jumps into the #97 car to give Josef Newgarden a teammate on the California weekend. Additionally, coming off a solid debut at Mid-Ohio for Dale Coyne Racing, James Davison will make his IndyCar Sonoma debut in the #18 this weekend. We already know about Ryan Briscoe with Panther Racing and JR Hildebrand with Team Barracuda, but it’s nice to see both of those drivers once again, too.
Briscoe’s Back: Speaking of Briscoe, it’s great to see Ryan back and recovered from his injury. Sonoma marks the place of his last series win, and he’ll be hoping to push Panther Racing to another level on this road course. Watching Briscoe in non-Penske equipment has been interested—a prolonged tryout for 2014, of sorts, and I’m immensely curious to see how he finishes out the season.
Team Barracuda Renaissance?: Sonoma is a “home race” for driver Hildebrand, and he’d love nothing more than to put an exclamation point on his return here while driving for Team Barracuda. As for Bryan Herta’s team, a good result and a clean weekend would be helpful in the extreme. Hildebrand nabbed a P8 result here last year, so let’s see if he can match or improve on that.
Livery Watch: where to start? Helio is in the Hitachi black-and-red this weekend, while Tony Kanaan’s #11 will be in the now-familiar Hydroxycut colors. Graham Rahal will switch over to the white-and-red Big O Tires livery, while Tristan Vautier will sport the green-and-yellow of Angie’s List. On the side of Lucas Luhr’s #97 will be the initials for RW Motorsports, who are helping make this venture of his possible this weekend.
Somewhat Interesting, Probably Meaningless Stat: Charlie Kimball will have his work cut out for him if he wants to repeat his awesome Mid-Ohio win. He’s the only driver in this field to finish worse than P20 at Sonoma the last two years.
Mazda Road to Indy Watch: No support from the MRTI at Sonoma this weekend. We’ll have to look to Baltimore for that, where Carlos Munoz, Gaby Chavez, and Sage Karam will continue their incredibly tight battle for an Indy Lights championship. Yep, I'll be missing Indy Lights this weekend, and I don't care who knows it.
Pole Prediction: Dario Franchitti. Guy’s on a roll.
Winner Prediction: Ryan Hunter-Reay. I think he can do it. If he doesn’t, a repeat title chance fades pretty badly.
Dark Horse Prediction: Seabastien Bourdais. It sounds as if he tested well, and that entry has been much improved as of late.
Don’t forget to make your IndyCar fantasy picks! Have a great weekend!