That really wasn’t that bad, and we have undoubtedly seen worse at Sonoma Raceway. Who had Sebastien Bourdais in the who-will-bring-the-first-yellow pool at work? I sure didn’t and I am shocked his unforced error was as dramatic as it was. A cracked tub for him and a broken hand for Josef Newgarden does not bode well for either drivers push to the end of the season. And only adding to the confusing weekend, Ryan Briscoe took the lead from Will Power during an oddball pit stop exchange en route to his first win in two years. On top of that, Will Power’s championship rivals could not make the progress needed and have all but handed the championship to Penske and Power. The current points standings are not necessarily surprising, but the road taken to get there this weekend was a bit crazy.
Ryan Briscoe – I will admit to silently rooting against the Australian driver since his last win over two years ago. I need a seat vacated at either Penske or Ganassi and I need it open now. We have not seen a driver change at the top of the field in nearly five years. And with Briscoe annually tipped as the driver most in danger, one more year of relatively poor performances would have almost certainly sealed his fate with the captain. Then Briscoe wins one, and wins it in convincing fashion by holding off Will Power through the last stint of the race. I can’t imagine Penske was too happy about that, but Ryan saved himself at least for the time being. His win could not have come at a more important time. It has been over two calendar years without a win for Briscoe and that is a stat the captain surely doesn’t like repeating.
Track Improvements? – After a weekend of practice and a race to cap the event off, the highly touted track improvements seemed to be hit or miss depending on what corner we are discussing. Turn seven looks to have been the most successful change and action all day long punctuated a corner that was more of a follow the leader carousel in years past. The chicane at turn nine looked to be just a bit too fast for anything other than a poke and hope move. The extra runoff is always welcome, but the corner needs to be tightened up again for next year. Finally, turn 11 seemed to see no differences in action even though it received 200 more feet of asphalt at its entrance, and I don’t think it really helped that much. Again, I feel the DW12 had more of a hand in the improved action than any of the track changes. But this is still a step in the right direction; thank you Sonoma Raceway for caring enough to think about our series.
What Happened? – Well, Will Power drove his race, finished second and went home with a healthy points lead. Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay were buried in the pack after a few incidents of contact and Helio Castroneves kept his head in the game with a P6 finish. Dixon who sits 54 back, and Castroneves who sits 41 points behind Power both have their work cut out for them and can only focus on winning the rest of the season out. Power has proven that he must be beat on track this year if the other contenders have any hope of stealing the championship. Power still has to get through the 500 miles at Fontana in one piece, but anything short of a last place finish should make this Power’s championship to lose.
Ryan Hunter-Reay – The American title hopeful and first realistic home grown contender since Sam Hornish Jr’s championship in 2005. I have never subscribed to the idea that the series needs an affable American winning to gain some momentum, but there was definitely a buzz around RHR a few weeks ago. Being the “indycar dude” at work, I had more than a few people talk to me that were known sports center junkies but had somehow stumbled across some indycar news. This never happens. But fast forward a month and everything is not as cheery over at Team Sundrop as it once was. Two poor finishes in a row and his championship hopes have faded as fast as they came about. He is only 36 point back, but barring something major happening to Will Power during the final two events RHR will have to wait another year.
Chevrolet – Dario Franchitti’s third place finish was not enough to give Honda another week of fight in the manufacturers’ standings and Chevy walks away victorious with two races remaining. But does this really matter? Sure, developing brand new technology for the direct injected turbocharged engine probably will help the road car line eventually, but at its core all motorsports sponsorships are exercises in marketing. I have no doubt that Chevy is in the series to win, but without that elusive 500 victory, much of the fight this year is moot. A championship is not what they are in it for. Anticlimactic is the only word I can muster to describe the situation. The championship is impressive and it was a hard fought battle with Honda throughout much of the season, but I want the bowtie brigade to storm victory circle in May next year. They have been a good partner throughout their freshman year and absolutely deserve it. Congratulations Team Chevy, you have done well; now go win us a 500 next year.
With that, indycar racing says goodbye to the natural terrain road courses for 2012. Even though we run at a few of the less desirable twistie facilities in North America, each one is still a treat. The series must find a way to add a few more in the coming years, because there are plenty to visit. That silly dollar… The paddock has a quick turnaround before heading out to the street circuit of Baltimore’s inner harbor; a fun even last year that should be even better without a chicane on the front straight. Three weeks from today we will be breaking down the 2012 championship and heading into a long off-season all while asking: “is it May yet?” Enjoy these last few weeks. The championship may not be as close as we are accustomed to, but there is still plenty to look forward to.