ENDURING SUNDAY

8-Hour Grid

Pace Car Burnout

PaceCar Smoke Trail

Sunday started out warm and sunny and just grew hotter as the day wore on. It was downright scorching mid-day, and a nearby brush fire blew a smokey brown cloud over the track. It was contained and the skies cleared somewhat with a late afternoon breeze.

The race got off to a rousing start, with the Pace Car doing a proper burnout worthy of a drag racer, leaving a smokey trail into Turn Two.

It was an Audi parade for the race, with an Audi always in the lead – with one brief exception. Often there were two or three Audi’s at the front.

Pierre Kaaffer, Markus Winkelhock, and Kelvin van der Linde

Pierre Kaaffer, Markus Winkelhock, and Kelvin van der Linde

Kelvin van der Linde of South Africa won the California 8-Hour International GT Challenge Sunday at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, driving the No.44 Audi Sport Team Magnus USA Audi R8 LMS. He made a daring pass in Turn Five on then-leader, Christopher Mies of Germany in No.29 Audi Sort Team Land USA Audi RS LMS. Pole sitter Team Land, with drivers Pierre Kaffer and Markus Winkelhock of Germany, had led the majority of the race including almost all of the first six hours. It wasn’t until the seventh hour that another car took the lead, but not for long. The No.11 Belgian Audi Club WRT from Belgium led at the top the hour, with Team Magnus and Team Land on his heels.

No.9 McLaren car art

No.9 McLaren car art - 2

No.9 McLarencar art - 3

Finishing third was Bryan Sellers of USA in No.9 K-PAX Racing USA McLaren 650S GT3, with co-drivers Alvaro Parente of Portugal and Ben Barnicoat of Great Britain. Their car was decorated with sayings from Pokemon Go, a favorite of the owner.

David Calvert-Jones, Tim Pappas, and Jeroen Bleekemolen

David Calvert-Jones, Tim Pappas, and Jeroen Bleekemolen

Winning the GT3 Pro-Am Class was its pole sitter, Jeroen Bleekmolen of The Netherlands, with teammates David Calvert-Jones of Australia and Tim Pappas/USA in the shiny metallic green No.54 Black Swan Racing USA Porsche 911 GT3 R. They led most of the race and turned four of the class fastest laps, finishing fifth overall, two laps down. The other fast lapper was class runner-up, No.77 Calvert Dynamics/GMG Racing USA Porsche 911 GT3 R with an all-America driver line-up: Michael James Lewis, Preston Calvert, and Andrew Davis. They finished eighth overall, six laps down. They were the only leader that wasn’t an Audi or GT3 car. This was in the first hour during a short-fuel pit stop.

No.54 Porsche 911 GT3 R

No.54 Porsche 911 GT3 R

Jeff Westphal of the US won the GT4 Class in No.26 Rearden Racing USA Porsche Cayman GT4-R, with fellow Yanks, Jeff Kearl and Sean McAlister. They finished eleventh overall, 28 laps down. Second in class was Andy Lee in No.8 HKG Racing/GMG Racing Porsche GT4 Clubsport MR, with an all American driver lineup: Carter Yeung and Jon Miller.

Winning the Invitational Class was one of the two MARC Cars from Australia – No.193 with Jake Camilleri, Hadrian Morral and Morgan Haber. They finished ninth overall, 20 laps down. They were the fastest once, but their teammates were fastest in class the rest of the race. That would be No.194 with drivers Keith Kassulke of Papua New Guinea, Ryan McLeod of Australia and Will Rodgers of USA. They finished second in class, tenth overall, also 20 laps down.

Jake Camilleri,  Morgan Haber, and Hadrian Morral

Jake Camilleri, Morgan Haber, and Hadrian Morral

To say there was great speed differentials in the cars would be an understatement.
It made for lots of blue flagging.

There wasn’t much in the way of position changes during the eight-hour race. Sixteen of the 19 cars finished with the top three cars on the lead lap – 314. Three cars failed to finish, due to mechanical problems.

I didn’t get to follow the race as closely as usual, as I spent much the day moving from corner to corner, relieving corner workers. I got to see the cars and track from new perspectives, and gained a new appreciation for standing on a corner in the blazing hot sun with no shade.

It was a safe race without much drama. Alls well that ends well. And the endurance series might be back again next year.

LET’S GO RACING!

MAZDA 787B

Saturday was race day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with seven races on the schedule, along with several qualifying sessions. The entry to the track has a new addition – a large mural of the NO.55 Mazda 787B sports car, driven by Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot. It was the last Wankel racer. It is 32 feet wide and ten feet tall, was commissioned by SCRAMP and built by local artist, John Cerny.

The weather all day was sunny and clear, warm with some breezes. Ideal racing weather.

Christopher Haase

The California 8-Hour International GT Challenge had an hour-long qualifying session, followed by a 13-car Pole Shootout. The overall winner and GT3 pole sitter was the No.29 Audi Sport Team Lane Audi R8 LMS, with Christoher Haase of Germany setting the fastest lap of 1:23.961/95.96mph/154.43kph on the last of his five laps. His teammates are Connor De Phillippi/USA and Christopher Mies of Germany.

Jeroen Bleekemolen

The fastest GT3 Pro driver was Jereon Bleekemolen of The Netherlands in No.54 Black Swan Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R. His teammates are David Calvert-Jones/Australia and Tim Pappas/USA.His lap was 1:24.766/95mph/152.96kph. They will grid seventh. He set his fast time on the seventh of his ten laps.

Brandon/Michael Davis

The fastest GT4 driver was Brandon/Michael Davis/USA in No.07 TRG USA Aston Martin GT4. His teammates are Greg Milzcik and Derek Deboer, all of the US. His lap was 1:31.655/87.90mph/141.46kph. They will grid 13th. His fast lap was set on the last of his four laps.

Jake Camilleri

The fastest invitational driver was Jake Camilleri of Brisbane Australia in No.193 MARC Cars Australia Marc Mazda 3 V8, with a lap of 1:29.086/90.43mph/145.54kph, set on the last of his four laps. They will grid 11th. His Aussie teammates are Hadrian Morral and Morgan Haber. They will grid eleventh. They have been the invitational team at two other races in Malaysia and Belgium. They are traveling around the world spreading the gospel on their unique cars.

Jake Pipal, PJ Groenke, and Canaan O'Connell

Jake Pipal, PJ Groenke, and Canaan O’Connell

Pirelli World Challenge Touring Championship had its classes divided into two separate races, a move which was applauded by all concerned. The TCA/TCB race was a barn burner and hotly contested. The lead changed several times officially and more so unofficially. Then-TCB Points leader, Jake Pipal/No.6 Honda led the most laps but in the end was beaten by P.J. Groenke in the No.25 Sonic, with the two of then ending up with 243 points to tie for the lead going into the last race. Race pole sitter, Canaan O’Connell/No.24 Sonic finished third, and second in the standings with 240 points. The grid for the finale race was set on the fastest race laps for each, so they gridded teammates O’Connell and Groenke, with Pipal starting third.

Kenny Murillo, Eric Powell, and Tom O'Gorman

Kenny Murillo, Eric Powell, and Tom O’Gorman

In the TCA race, the grid and finishing positions were similar, but there was a lot of racing in-between flags. Pole sitter Eric Powell/No.23 Scion took the checkered flag in the nine car field. However he was DSQ for being underweight, putting Kenny Murillo/No.33 Mazda MX-5 Cup in first, Tom O’Gorman/No.94 Honda now second, and Jeff Sexton/No.89 MX-5 in third. Powell had turned the fastest race lap of 1:42.286/78.76mph/126.76kph. The Championship went to Matthew Fassnacht/No.74 MX-5, who finished fourth overall.

The second race was more of a parade, with fewer passes or position changes. Groenke won and turned the fastest race lap of 1:53.269/71.76mph/115.49kph. Pipal finished second, and Jasper Drengler/No.01 Honda third. With the victory, Groenke, who has been racing TCB since 2012, won the championship by two points ahead of Pipal, and Pipal is in contention for Rookie of the Year. Groenke was over the moon about his standing start and winning the championship.

O’Connell finished out of the running with a DNF for transmission.

The TCA/TCB events at MRLS will be televised on Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017 at 8 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

This is just the third race weekend for young Murillo, and in six races, he’s amassed three victories, one pole, two runner-up finishes, and a fourth place. This must be a bittersweet weekend for Murillo and his family, with whom he lives. Their family home was burned to the ground this week in the horrific Sonoma County fires while they were coming back from Road Atlanta where the family runs an IMSA ST Porsche team – Murillo Racing with Jeff Mosing and Eric Foss. The team won its championship. Kenny works on the team. He’s just turned 21 so he can drink champagne on the podium.

Greg Liefooghe, Paul Holton, and Pierre Kleinubing

Greg Liefooghe, Paul Holton, and Pierre Kleinubing

In the TC race, Paul Holton again won, with Greg Liefooghe coming in second and Pierre Kleinubing/No.26 BMW finishing third. Mason Filippi/No.12 BMW finished fourth and won Hard Charger Award for gaining three positions – which he did early on, and held on for the rest of the 25-lap race. Mark Drennan, who had turned the fastest race lap in the first race, retired with mechanical problems.

Sunday’s schedule begins with the 9:15am local time start for the California 8-Hour International GT Series race.

FRIDAY THE 13TH!

Friday Sunrise

Friday dawned clear and cloudless with a beautiful sunrise over the hills at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the first official day of the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix of Monterey. How can a day like this be unlucky when it starts like this!

There’s a full schedule of races, with a new to California event – The Intercontinental GT Challenge. This will be an eight-hour endurance race on Sunday. The entries for the nineteen teams come from the US and abroad – Australia and Belgium; and the drivers come from America, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain,the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, and South Africa. This series has a unique concept for the four races it runs: It works with local GT3 teams in the country in which it’s running, transporting drivers and engineers instead of cars and equipment. The other events are Liqui-Moly Bathhurst 12 Hours, Total 24 Hours of Spa and the Sepang 12 Hours.

Other races on the schedule are for the Pirelli World Challenge TC class, PWC TCA/TCB Classes, Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup and Pirelli GT# Trophy Cup USA.

Friday’s schedule called for a 90-minute practice and a pre-qualifying session for the California 8-Hour Series, two practice sessions and a qualifying session for the PWC Touring classe, a practice and a qualifying session for the MX-5 Mazdas and a 45-minute race at days end for the GT3 Porsches. All in all, a ten hour day.

The California enduro cars had two sessions, and the No.29 Audi R8 LMS was fastest in each. The results don’t list which of the three drivers turned the fastest lap, and the monitor isn’t always up-to-date. Christopher Mies/Germany was listed last. The other two drivers for the car are Connor De Philippi/USA, and Christophe Haase/Germany.

Second in the afternoon Pre-Qualifying session was Patrick Long/USA in No.58 Porsche 911 GT3R, with co-drivers Jorg Bergmeister/Germany and Romain Dumas of France.

Third fastest in the afternoon was Alvero Parente/Portugal, with Bryan Sellers/USA and Ben Barnicott of Great Britain in his first ever time at MRLS.

No.29 Audi

No.58 Porsche

No.9 McLaren

Left to right: No.29 Audi R8 LMS; No.59 Porsche 911 GT3 R; and No.9 McLaren 650S GT3.

The PWC TC classes have a championship is on the line this weekend. The point spread is especially close in the TCB class – three points before qualifying between three drivers: Jake Pipal/No.6 Honda, PJ Groenke/No.25 Sonic, and Canaan O’Connell/No.24 Sonic.

O’Connell has the TCB pole position with a provisional new track record lap of 1:51.488/72.2 mph. This gives him another point, which now ties him for second in the standings with teammate, Groenke and just two adrift of Points Leader Pipal. Young O’Connell, a driver instructor at Bondurant’s Driving School in AZ, said “We’re so close – PJ (Groenke) and Jake (Pipal) and I – that I can’t hold anything back.”

Legendary sports car/GT driver and 4-time PWC GT Champion, Johnny O’Connell, is getting used now to being “Canaan’s Dad.” He joked that “the kid finally took my advice.”

Canaan O'Connell

PJ Groenke No.25 Sonic

Jake Pipal

Left to right: Canaan O’Connell; PJ Groenke No.25 Sonic; and Jake Pipal.

The TC class races are Saturday morning and are split, with the TC class by itself, and the TCA and TCB running together. The fastest race laps of those races will set the grid for the afternoon races. Their Awards Banquet is that evening.

Paul Holton No.71 Audi

TC Points Leader, Paul Holton/No.71 Audi has the TC pole with a lap of 1:35.474/84.3 mph. He said “That (qualifying lap) was one of those laps where it was either going to be on the pole or it was going to be in the wall. Thankfully we got it on the pole. I don’t think I’ve sent a car off the Corkscrew as hard as I did that time.”

Eric Powell/No.23 Scion turned a 1:41.680/79.2 mph for the TCA pole. “It’s awesome to get our own race, to be the feature event. Aside from that, it’s nice to not have to worry about incidents in the Touring Car class affecting our race.”

Another championship which will be hotly contested will be the MX-5 Mazdas, who are racing for a lucrative $120,000 in prize money including $75,000 to the Saturday afternoon race winner. The provisional pole went to Nikko Reger/No.01 of Texas. Second and third were Robby Foley/No.63 of NJ and Patrick Gallagher/No.29 of Ohio. There are 19 cars in this group, including 12 Rookies.

Russell Ward/No.35 won the 45-minute race for the Pirelli GT3 Trophy Cup USA, from the pole position. Second and third finished in their qualifying position also: Loren Beggs/No.08 and Alex Kirby/No.01. All three are in the Diamond class.

The weather was sunny all day, warming up nicely in the afternoon, with the breezes ranging back and forth between gentle to stronger.

Thursday was an all-day test session. Two drivers had bad crashes, but they are alright. The cars are not and at least one is undergoing a 24-hour restoration, with more car parts on the way. As the day went on, observed one series Chief Steward, the drivers pushed the limits further and further. The SFR SCCA Course Marshals and Emergency Crews were kept busy picking up and cleaning up while the flaggers got plenty of practice with the variety of flags.

Saturday’s schedule calls for two qualifying sessions and seven races. Throw in a PWC TC Autograph session and noontime Race & Rods Parade Laps and you have another rich and full ten-hour day.

THE CAPTAIN WINS!

Roger Penske and the No.2 Newgarden Team

Roger Penske and the No.2 Newgarden Team, Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

Verizon IndyCar Team Owner Roger Penske was a double winner Sunday at Sonoma Raceway’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, with the race winner Simon Pagenaud and 2017 Champion, Josef Newgarden. Pagenaud led the last 24 laps of the 85-lap race, with Newgarden hot on his heels. The crucial turning point of the race came on Lap 64 with the last lead change between Newgarden and Pagenaud, with the Frenchman coming out ahead. They raced hard after that stop. It was the eleventh career victory for Pagenaud, and his second straight win at Sonoma Raceway. His Margin of Victory was 1.0986 seconds. Pagenaud completed every single IndyCar race lap, the only driver to do so. He was cheered by his peers in the Sunday Drivers’ Meeting on his performance as the Defending Champion all year.

Simon Pagenaud, Race Winner

Simon Pagenaud. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

Pagenaud had already depleted two-thirds of his Push to Pass, whereas Newgarden had only used three seconds of the allotted 150. Pagenaud kept Newgarden at bay, finishing with only 7 seconds PTP, while Newgarden never used any more. The Frenchman was on a mission from the get-go, turning the fastest time of 109.575 mph – 1:18.3576 on Lap 13. Pagenaud said “I would rather be hunted than in the hunt.”

Josef Newgarden, Champion

Josef Newgarden. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

Newgarden’s race strategy was called by Penske President, Tim Cindric, who kept coaching him to keep focused on the goal – the Championship. Newgarden did and finished second, to become the youngest Championship since the unified series. He and Pagenaud swapped the lead six times, each leading for 41 laps. Newgarden won by 13 points, in his 100th career start. Newgarden said “It’s too awesome.” And “It was hard not to win, but Tim kept coaching me to be smart.”

Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden photos by Pablo & Nico Matamoros.

Finishing third through fifth were other contenders: Will Power/No.11 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, and Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.

Will Power

Power said “Obviously, you want to be the one that wins it, but it’s very tough these days, and you’ve got to have a very solid year to get it done, and when I look at this year, no one made mistakes. You see the top six there, top six or seven are the top six or seven almost every race. We had some ups and downs with the No. 12 Verizon Chevy team, but it was a good year. We won some races and some poles. We’ll give it another go next year.”

Scott Dixon fueling

Scott Dixon fueling. Photo by Nico Matamoros

Dixon said “”It just seems like the No. 3 car covered us. Every time we short-pitted they followed us and he was just a massive roadblock. Once we got into clean air, we were able to make up ground, but every time we got into traffic we got real loose. Huge credit to everyone on the NTT Data crew obviously not the way we wanted to finish. A big congrats to Penske and Josef (Newgarden) on a job well done.”

Castroneves said “I’m always going to focus on the positive thing. The (Championship) P4 is not what it represents because we were in a battle a lot more years than that. And that’s what I look at. I look because each year that’s what kept me motivated to come back and push hard, and that for me was hard. But to keep up like I’ve been doing all these years, I think it’s the hardest thing to do. But it doesn’t just happen. It comes with a great team. It comes with great dedication from your guys, great trust, and obviously, myself to keep motivated, finding ways to keep pushing and having teammates like I have today, no question, helped me to become a better driver.”

The other championship contender, Alexander Rossi/No.98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda fell out of contention early on, after pitting with mechanical problems. The crew labored for 25 laps and got him back on track to finish in P21. “It was a pretty disappointing day, to have a mechanical issue after the first stop. I think we were in a pretty decent position to possibly get in the top five after our opening stint but it wasn’t meant to be today. A huge shout out to the NAPA Auto Parts team and the Andretti-Herta boys for the hard work back in the garage to get us back out there, we picked up another spot.”

There were only three leaders – Pagenaud, Newgarden and Conor Daly/No.4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, who led once for three laps during leader pit stop rotations. He finished tenth. “I have to thank the boys for keeping faith in the strategy. It was a bold move to make the three-stop call.It was a good consistent race. It was tough – there were a lot of moments of flying through the air and banging wheels with people. It was wild, so I’m just happy to come back in one piece and have another consistent finish to end the year.”

The top Rookie was Israeli driver, Zachary Claman DeMelo/No.13 Paysafe Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, who finished 17th after starting 21st. “Jack Harvey and Tony Kanaan came together and they got stuck and slowed down a bit more than I anticipated. I just clipped Harvey, who was really close, and unfortunately, I broke the front wing which forced us to make an early pit stop. After that, the pace was really good. I ran with some quick guys like Will Power and Helio (Castroneves), and drove away from Helio. It was a good day. I learned a lot and want to thank Paysafe for the opportunity.”

Roger Penske, Simon Pagenaud & Tim Cindric

Roger Penske, Simon Pagenaud & Tim Cindric

All kinds of stats came with this caution-free race: Newgarden is the first American IndyCar Champion in five years, the youngest since the unified IndyCar. Newgarden finished with more Push to Pass remaining than any other driver, including those who retired. This was the fifteenth indycar Championship for Roger Penske, and his 197th indycar win. This was the first caution-free IndyCar race in Sonoma Raceway’s 14-year year history. This was the fifth Driver’s Championship for Chevrolet since joining IndyCar in 2012.

Simon Pagenaud.

Simon Pagenaud. Photo by Nico Matamoros

There wasn’t much in the way of incidents – some banging and blocking, and good racing. Pagenaud was teased about his shortcuts through the turf, and he joked that he wanted to try some dirt racing. There was only one penalty – Charlie Kimball/No.83 Tresiba Chip Ganassi Racing got a speeding ticket. Twelve of the 19 finishers were on the lead lap. Three retirements were due to mechanical problems.

It was announced during the broadcast that Tony Kanaan is going to AJ Foyt Racing next year. Musical Chairs begins.

Hinchcliffe didn’t have the best of luck this weekend, including the race. “After a good start, we made up a couple spots and then I was trying to set up someone going through Turn 3, and I guess Spencer (Pigot) just went for a gap that was closing and hit us, spun us out and put us to the back of the field and did some damage to the car. From there on it was tough just hanging on to the No. 5 Arrow Electronics machine. Like I said, we don’t give up, and we kept digging, trying to make up whatever spots we could, but ultimately some damage was done to the electronics on the car and the gearbox electronics stopped working so I was stuck in gear. Very unfortunate, but still a lot to be proud of this season.”

Rookie of the Year, Ed Jones/No.19 Boy Scouts of America Dale Coyne Racing Honda retired after 69 laps with technical failures.

Takuma Sato/No.26 Andretti Autosport Honda retired on Lap 62 with mechanical problems. Early on he had a shredded right rear tire which he nursed back to the pits.

American Flag Parachute Jump

The Push to Pass stats were interesting. Newgarden only used three, while Marco Andretti/No.27 United Fiber &Data Andretti Autosport Honda and Pigot used up theirs. Along with Pagenaud, other drivers with only seven seconds left were Chip Ganassi Racing Honda teammates, Max Chilton/No.8 Gallagher and Charlie Kimball/No.83 Tresiba.

UNOFFICIAL GOPRO OF SONOMA RACE RESULTS

POS Car# Driver Car Laps Status

1. (3) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 85, Running
2. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 85, Running
3. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 85, Running
4. (6) Scott Dixon, Honda, 85, Running
5. (4) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 85, Running
6. (9) Graham Rahal, Honda, 85, Running
7. (11) Marco Andretti, Honda, 85, Running
8. (7) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 85, Running
9. (10) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 85, Running
10. (13) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 85, Running
11. (15) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 85, Running
12. (14) Max Chilton, Honda, 85, Running
13. (17) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 84, Running
14. (20) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 84, Running
15. (22) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 84, Running
16. (12) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 84, Running
17. (21) Zachary Claman DeMelo, Honda, 84, Running
18. (19) Jack Harvey, Honda, 84, Running
19. (18) Ed Jones, Honda, 69, Off Course
20. (5) Takuma Sato, Honda, 62, Off Course
21. (8) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 60, Running
22. (16) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 52, Electrical

Unofficial Points Standings:
Josef Newgarden 642
Simon Pagenaud 629
Scott Dixon 621
Helio Castroneves 598
Will Power 562
Graham Rahal 522
Alexander Rossi 494
Takuma Sato 441
Ryan Hunter-Reay 421
Tony Kanaan 403

First Lap

First Lap. Photo by Nico Matamoros

LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, it’s mild and sunny, with hazy blue skies and a moderate breeze. The Verizon IndyCar drivers got to sleep in a bit as they’re not on track until 11:30am for their half-hour warm-up. Other activities were ongoing as the weekend wound up its four-day schedule. There were five two-seater IndyCars giving VIP rides with drivers Mario Andretti, Gabby Chaves, Davey Hamilton, Arie Luyendyk Jr, and Zach Veach. The morning race schedule included Pirelli World Challenge GT and GTS races, as well as another Pirelli Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge race. It was fascinating to watch the transition between the various series, which are paddocked in various reaches of the elevated road course, including the World Challenge cars which are parked outside Turn Seven. So all three ‘lanes’ on the front stretch are a maze of activity with the various cars going in different directions simultaneously. They snake up one lane, down another, and around the course up to Turn Seven, or into the pit lane and paddock behind the IndyCars.

IndyCar Pre-Race Ceremonies began at 2:20pm local time, and the Green Flag set for the 85-lap GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma IndyCar race at 3:30pm. It will air live on NBCSN. By 6pm there will be a race winner and 2017 Champion – one or two different drivers. The excitement mounts.

For the race, nine drivers including the top three drivers, will start on Black Primary Tires. The other 13 will start on the softer red Alternative tires. Of the four Penske drivers, three will start on Primary, with only Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi Chevrolet out on Alternatives, as will the other two contenders, Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and Alexander Rossi/No.98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda. Let the games begin!

Tony Kanaan

IC Autograph Crowd

Sebastien Bourdais

Saturday morning the IndyCar drivers got up early and sat in the chilly morning air to sign autographs for a huge, orderly crowd of fans.

Paul Blevin

Ever wondered what it takes to be an IndyCar Starter? I asked Paul Blevin of Riverside just that. He was asked 18 years ago by the then-current starter to come on board as an assistant, and that it would take some travel. Blevin came from flagging off road and Mickey Thompson events. He found open wheel and road racing was a bit more complicated. With larger fields and all those pits stops, blue flagging is more complex. Experience over the years has helped. And now there is technology to assist. In the Starter Stand, Blevin has a computer and monitor which keeps him apprised of the running order. There is also a screen resembling the video game, Centipede. It has a track outline showing the position of each race car – diamond icon for the leader, circles for the field, and a yellow box for those a lap down.

The job has grown over the years and just this year the crew has added its third Starter – Brad Hackaday. He joins Tom Hansen who’s been a starter for more than five years.

Among the duties on their job description now comes working with the IndyCar Timing & Scoring crew, helping with setup and breakdown. There are eight TV monitors to run just for Race Control, and “miles and miles of cable.”

Marcia Ulise

At an IndyCar weekend, Blevin will be on the stand for the IndyCar race and any other race under the IndyCar umbrella. This includes the three official series in the Mazda Road to Indy: Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda; Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires; and Indy Lights. There also could be the occasional Mazda MX-5 Cup Series, part of the Mazda Road to the 24 Series.

This weekend Blevin is working with Hackaday and local starter, Marcia Ulise.

Honda’s Art St. Cyr met with the media and discussed the 2017 season. Honda had seven wins this season and all of its five teams won a race, including the Indianapolis 500 with Takuma Sato from Andretti Autosport. Last year AA won with Rookie driver Alexander Rossi. St. Cyr said he was pleased that Honda had its team line-up for 2018 set, although not all the individual drivers. The teams are (again) Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. And St. Cyr wouldn’t be drawn into any speculation on the musical seats. “Driver lineup might be a little bit different, but having those teams set right now gives us a chance to really put our plan in place early on to make sure that the offseason testing will go well, especially with this new universal aero kit, make sure that the information that we can provide for the teams gives them a good foundation for them to launch off next year. Hopefully next year will be even more successful.”

Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors All-Star and points guard for the last two recent NBA Championships, is the Grand Marshal for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. He got a two-seater ride in an IndyCar with Mario Andretti, and was awed by the experience, saying he was impressed by how the drivers put it on the line every time they get in the car.

The IndyCar Series Manufacturer Championship was determined before this weekend’s events, and the huge trophy was presented by Jay Fry, IndyCar President of Copetition and Operations to Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell, Vice-President of Performance Vehicle an Motorsports and Mark Kent, Director of Motorsports Competition.

Chevrolet Manufacturer's Trophy

Also present were the three Chevrolet team owners whose drivers earned the championship: Ed Carpenter, AJ Foyt and Roger Penske. Points were earned by drivers and teams based on finishes on the first four engines they ran. This put a premium on reliability and performance. Going into the weekend, Chevrolet had nine wins and ten poles this season. It became 11 poles by Saturday afternoon. Currently there are eight Chevrolet drivers, approximately 40 percent of the field. Campbell hinted there could be more drivers next season, but refused to be drawn into any further elaboration.

Left to Right: Team Owners TonyGeorge, Larry Foyt, AJ Foyt, Roger Penske, Ed Carpenter, and Chevrolet's Mark Kent & Jim Campbell. Back Row Ilmor: Steve O'Connell, Wayne Bennett, Paul Ray & Steve Miller.  Photo by Mike Levitt/GM.

Left to Right: Team Owners Tony George, Larry Foyt, AJ Foyt, Roger Penske, Ed Carpenter, and Chevrolet’s Mark Kent & Jim Campbell.
Back Row Ilmor: Steve O’Connell, Wayne Bennett, Paul Ray & Steve Miller.
Photo by Mike Levitt/GM.

HERE’S TO THE KID!

Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Josef Newgarden and his No.2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet team gambled on red tire choices and won, taking his first Verizon Pole Position since 2015 and broke the qualifying track record with a blistering lap of 1:15.5205. He had run his sticker reds in the first qualifying round and took the pole on red “scuffs.” This stretches his points gap to four points ahead of closest contender, Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Honda.

Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

Newgarden was so excited, he had to be reminded what he said when he was told he had the pole. “Are You Kidding Me?”

The pole position doesn’t change his attitude going into the race. “No, this is IndyCar racing. Anything can happen. So, we’ve checked one thing off the box this weekend. We’ve got one big one to check off tomorrow. And then, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll see where we end up at the end.”

It was a nail biter of a Firestone Fast Six, with the lead changing a couple of times between Newgarden and Castroneves. The Penske Posse prevailed for the top four: Newgarden, Will Power/No.11 Verizon, Simon Pagenaud/No.1 DXC Technology, and Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi.

Fifth and sixth were Takuma Sato/No.26 Andretti Autosport Honda, the only non-contender in the Fast Six, and Dixon.

It was the tenth pole for Team Penske this season – the only team to win any poles in 2017. Now all Penske drivers have at least one 2017 pole on their respective resumes. All in all, Roger Penske’s team has 256 indycar pole positions, more than any other team.

The post-conference was brief and full of levity. While one driver would speak, the others closely perused the T&S monitor.

Penske Posse Paying Attention

Regarding his thoughts on the Championship, Newgarden said “You always think about it. If you tell me not to think about it, I’m going to think about it. So, it’s difficult to not envision it, but I think for us, we’ve got to get through the race. We’ve got to have a good race car. Qualifying is one thing. Having speed is one thing. Winning the race is a whole other deal. So, we’re going to work hard with this Team Penske group. We’ve got four guys very capable of getting it done. For the Captain and for everyone at the factory, we want to make sure one of these Team Penske cars wins the championship. So, that’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

Will Power

Power was asked how frustrating to be so close, three and a half hundredths off pole. “Yeah, well, I mean, you start going back through the lap in your head. I could have just hit the throttle a little earlier there, yeah. Would have helped me braking actually, push back.

Yeah, it’s tight. It’s just like that sometimes. I mean, gave it everything I got. That’s the situation.”

Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud said “That was really close. I can’t be unhappy with the DXC Technology Chevrolet. I thought we had as good a chance as any at the pole, but Josef (Newgarden) and Will (Power) were a little bit faster. Third is not a bad starting position at all. We’ll be right there if they make a mistake and right there to apply some pressure. We’ll continue to work on the car this evening and tomorrow morning in final practice then put together our race strategy. We plan for it to be a great day for the No. 1 team, but expect it to be a great day for Team Penske.”

Helio Castroneves

Castroneves said “The talent of our group is incredible. Great job on Josef Newgarden winning the pole. Our team is really strong and we work really well together. It’s really exciting for Team Penske that we will start in the front tomorrow. I’d rather Josef get the pole and we get the victory. For us with the No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet, we wish we had a little more speed during qualifying. We have a great spot up front but wish we had a little more. It’s going to be quite a battle tomorrow with my teammates and Scott Dixon and we are ready for the challenge.”

Roger Penske

Roger Penske.Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Castroneves summed up the Penske Posse philosophy. “But in the end of the day, we still got to deliver this championship to Roger. We understand what we need to do. That’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

He elaborated. “Yeah, well, you know the top four today here is Team Penske. It made a lot of sense. We planned that at the beginning of the year. We’re surprised actually people did not decide to join Team Penske. I’m not sure how the rules were, if they’re allowed or not. But the point is, they were allowed, right? I don’t understand why.

“As mentioned, a hundred points (for winning race.) Team Penske, we’re throwing everything out there. We wanted this championship as bad as anybody. We do have a chance. We going to obviously try to execute. That’s our goal.

“So we did learn a lot, not only as qualifying but also as race pace. Certainly this place, the weather change quite a lot. So even that we came here, it was one way, but at least that day, we checked that box. We knew what to do. But it was a progress toward the entire weekend for us, to keep improving our cars. Today it showed very well in the qualifying. Now we got to continue finishing the rest of the job.”

Sato said “It was a fantastic feeling. Obviously, the fifth position isn’t pole position, but I think looking at the speed of the competitors, we achieved what we could do. I think certainly, the entire Andretti Autosport and No. 26 guys did a enormous, fantastic job so I’m really happy with them and we got it done all together.”

Scott Dixon

Dixon was philosophical after the session, in which it was down to the wire if he or Rahal would make the cut. “As a team, I think this is always one of our most difficult circuits that we come to. This morning, we made some good gains, but the conditions this afternoon, we just didn’t have the grip. It was kind of strange. The balance felt good. The car was kind of decent to drive, but just couldn’t carry the speed through the corners.

“Kind of interesting. We almost didn’t make group one. Then just squeaked through in Q2. Good to make it through to where we did. It was definitely hard work. A big credit to the team.

“Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there. I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race. Definitely you’d want to be a little further up. But that’s the way it goes.

“We’ll make the most of the starting position and see what tomorrow brings.

“We’ll just have to see how the car is on the long run. We always know that the Penskes are going to be strong here. The other manufacturer’s aero kit is going to be strong at this track. We know the deficits that we have. But we can still as a team overcome those, whether it’s strategy or a car on the long run that’s hopefully going to be good.”

His team owner, Chip Ganassi, said he wasn’t going to beat up Dixon.

Takuma Sato

GOPRO GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA QUALIFYING

POS CAR# DRIVER CAR TIME SPEED

1. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:15.5205 (113.691)
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:15.5556 (113.638)
3. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:15.6356 (113.518)
4. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:15.8032 (113.267)
5. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:16.2208 (112.646)
6. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 01:16.3978 (112.385)
7. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:16.1815 (112.705)
8. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:16.1934 (112.687)
9. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:16.1968 (112.682)
10. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 01:16.5811 (112.116)
11. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:16.8221 (111.765)
12. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 01:16.9718 (111.547)
13. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 01:17.1016 (111.360)
14. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 01:16.7581 (111.858)
15. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 01:17.1417 (111.302)
16. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:16.9539 (111.573)
17. (20) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:17.2662 (111.122)
18. (19) Ed Jones, Honda, 01:17.0231 (111.473)
19. (7) Jack Harvey, Honda, 01:17.2722 (111.114)
20. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 01:17.1602 (111.275)
21. (13) Zachary Claman DeMelo, Honda, 01:17.2814 (111.100)
22. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 01:17.2507 (111.145)

PENSKE POSSE POWER PLUS DIXON

Simon Pagenaud

Simon Pagenaud. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

The Penske Posse dominated yet again in the third and final practice for the Verizon Indy Car Series at Sonoma Raceway Saturday morning, with another contender – Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda splitting them up. In a run-up for qualifying for Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the 22 drivers ran 247 laps during the 45-minute session. There was almost no drama during the green-flag practice. I said almost. Rookie Ed Jones/No.19 Boy Scouts of America Dale Coyne Racing did a gentle spin early on, but no harm, no foul, and he continued to finish fifteenth for the session. James Hinchcliffe/No.5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda had a couple of spins – first in Turn 2 from which he recovered; and later, a spin in Turn 7 about two laps from the end of the practice with a mega tire burnout, and stall. Traffic got around. He was able to run eleven laps before his misstep. He finished seventeenth.

This time the Penske lads mixed up the order, with 2016 IndyCar Champion, Simon Pagenaud/No.1 DXC Technology Chevrolet leading the pack at 112.925 mph/1:16.0329. He was fastest on his third of his eight laps. Dixon pushed his nose into second place, 0.1125 seconds behind.

Third through fifth were Will Power/No.11 Verizon, Josef Newgarden/No.2 hum by Verizon, and Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi.

Sixth was Takuma Sato/No.26 Andretti Autosport, followed by Sato’s 2018 teammate, Graham Rahal/No.15 United Rentals/Soldiers Strong Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda, Marco Andretti/No.27 United Fiber & Data Andretti Autosport Honda, and Tony Kanaan/No.10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, in his last race with Ganassi.

JR Hildebrand

JR Hildebrand. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Of the top eleven, only Newgarden and Rahal drove ten or more laps. All the rest turned single digit laps. JR Hildebrand/No.21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet ran the most laps – 20.

Ed Jones

Jones has captured the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award, the second Rookie for team owner, Dale Coyne. The previous driver was Alex Lloyd in 2010. Jones was the 2016 Indy Lights Champion which earned him three starts in the IndyCar Series. He has run the whole season with DCR and is hopes of continuing on next season. When pressed, Coyne was coy about how close was his brokering his 2018 driver lineup with Jones, but said “Just about. We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year, so..”

Ed Jones & Dale Coyne

Coyne said “When you take a rookie to his first test, you usually know right away what you’re going to get. That’s been pretty straightforward everywhere we go. Ed was that way. The biggest surprise with Ed was his race craft. When we got to the tracks, he’s never crashed this year, he’s had a couple little spins but never crashed. So that’s very welcomed on our team because we crashed plenty with the other car.”

Ed Jones. PM

Ed Jones. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Jones said it was difficult to pinpoint one specific thing Coyne told him in terms of best advice. “It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me. But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb (teammate, Sebastien Bourdais.) Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.”

Other IndyCar Rookies of the Year currently racing include Alexander Rossi/2016, Carlos Munoz/2014, Simon Pagenaud/2012, James Hinchcliffe/2011, Ryan Hunter-Reay/2007, Marco Andretti/2006 & Will Power/2006, Sebastien Bourdais/2003, and Scott Dixon/2001.

Jay Frye , Fred McConnell, Ed Jones and Dale Coyne

Jay Frye, IndyCar president of competition and operations; Fred McConnell, Sunoco Director of Fuels Marketing, Ed Jones, and Dale Coyne.

WINNING PRACTICE

Josef Newgarden. PM

Josef Newgarden. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Friday afternoon the weather conditions were the closest they could be to replicating Saturday’s qualifying session at Sonoma Raceway for the Verizon IndyCar Series. The temperature was 79 degrees F with 12 mph breezes. The skies were blue and all 22 drivers took to the track.

Josef Newgarden/No.2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was the fastest driver, at 1:16.2485. This lap is unofficially under the official track record set by Penske teammate, Simon Pagenaud last year in the first round of Qualifying with a time of 1:16.2530. He was pushing the car to the limits and it paid off.

“You don’t get anything for winning practice, but it goes a long way to build confidence,” said Newgarden. He’s topped the first two practice sessions at Sonoma Raceway

Simon Pagenaud

Helio Castroneves

Will Power

Left to Right: Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, and Will Power. Photos by Pablo Matamoros.

Second through fourth were the other three Penske Posse drivers: Pagenaud/No.1 DXC Technology, Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi, and Will Power/No.11 Verizon. Power’s overall fourth place time was set in the morning. He might have gone faster, but he had a late-session spin on his alternative tires.

Josef Newgarden carrying Will Power

Newgarden & Power. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

Two of the four Penske drivers are fighting physical ailments. Power showed up Thursday with a sore left leg incurred body surfing in Santa Cruz when he got knocked back by a wave. He can drive OK and even left brake. He just can’t walk easily, which is why Newgarden carried him into the Thursday Media briefing. Castroneves has a bad cold for which he’s being treated, gotten when he was fleeing Hurricane Irma and was trapped in the Atlanta humid, crowded airport for hours on end waiting out rescheduled flights.

Nine of the 22 drivers were faster in the morning practice, including Power.

Ryan Hunter-Reay NM

Scott Dixon NM

Marco Andretti. PM

Alexander Rossi. NM

Takuma Sato. NM

Graham Rahal. PM

Fifth through tenth were all four of the Andretti Autosport Honda drivers, Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL, Contender Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Honda, Marco Andretti/No.27 United Fiber & Data, Alexander Rossi/No.98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb, and Takuma Sato/No.26. Photos by Pablo & Nico Matamoros.

Jack Harvey. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Jack Harvey. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Top Rookie was Ed Jones/No.19 Boy Scouts of America Dale Coyne Racing Honda in seventeenth place. The other Rookies were Jack Harvey/No.7 AutoNation Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in a dazzling purplish vinyl wrap; and Zachary Claman DeMelo/No.13 Paysafe Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda in twenty-first and twenty-second.

After the afternoon practice, the IndyCar teams had Pit Stop Practice.

Power's Pit Stop . NM

Power's Pit Stop. NM

Castroneves Pit Stop. NM

Pit Stop Signaler. NM

All Pit Stop Photos by Nico Matamoros.

FULL FRIDAY

Friday at Sonoma Raceway the day started early with Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge and World Challenge practice. The Verizon IndyCar Series had its first official practice at 10am local time. The drivers were slow to come out. The skies were partly cloudy with a listless breeze and temps in the low sixties.

Josef Newgarden. PM

Will Power. NM

Simon Pagenaud. PM

Penske Posse: Josef Newgarden No.2-Photo by Pablo Matamoros; Will Power No.11 Photo by Nico Matamoros; Simon Pagenaud No.1 Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

Josef Newgarden/No.2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was fastest, at 112.390 mph/1:16.3950. He took the lead halfway through the session and never looked back. Second and third were his Penske teammates, Will Power/No.11 Verizon and Simon Pagenaud/No.1 DXC Technology.

Fourth and fifth were Alexander Rossi/No.98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda; and Sebastien Bourdais/No.18 UNIFIN Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing teams Honda was sixth and the other contender, Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet was eighth.

Conor Daly/No.4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet and Max Chilton/No.8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Hondas were first out and fastest, until the field filled. Other leaders during the 45-minute session were Rossi, Power and Newgarden.

In the second test session Thursday afternoon, Pagenaud was fastest at 112.014 mph/1:16.6511, considerably faster than the cooler morning session. All of the 22 drivers posted faster times in the afternoon. Penske teammate and Points leader, Newgarden was ninth. Championship contender Dixon was sixth. The top Rookie, of three, was Ed Jones/No.19 Boy Scouts of America Dale Coyne Racing Honda, in thirteenth position.

The only drama was late in the second test session. Takuma Sato/No.26 Andretti Autosport Honda went off in Turn 6. He wasn’t hurt, but the car was – substantial damage to the rear end. He ended his test and his crew went to work repairing the car. He was out Friday morning and ran 12th overall.

The day’s lone incident occurred when reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato went off course in Turn 6, sustaining significant rear-end damage to the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda that ended his day about an hour before conclusion of the session. Sato was unhurt.

There seemingly are some new TV camera angles, making for interesting viewing. NBCSN will broadcast live the second Friday IndyCar Practice at 2pm PT/5pm ET; qualifying Saturday 3:30pm PT/6:30pm ET; and the Sunday race on NBCSN and mathematical 360 in Canada at 3:30pm PT/6:30pm ET. All sessions are live-streamed on IndyCar.com.

Zachary Claman DeMello

Rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo is racing for the first time at Sonoma Raceway. He’s taken an abbreviated trip up the motorsports ladder, going from Skip Barber to Indy Lights to IndyCar. His goal this weekend is to learn and prepare himself for next year. While he wouldn’t mind running another year in the Indy Lights Series, go for the championship and the IndyCar seat prize money, his goal is IndyCar itself.

DeMelo is finding Sonoma Raceway challenging, with its high speed corners and lots of braking. The IndyCar has more downforce and softer tires. He ran primary tires in the morning practice, and is looking forward to running the alternative reds in the afternoon.

The Rookie trained a lot for this race, so he’s not sore from Thursday’s test session and its higher G forces. He’s finding confidence in running with other cars. Having an experience teammate such as Graham Rahal is very helpful, especially in debriefs. It’s good having Rahal’s feedback.

The number 13 is special to DeMelo. It’s lucky. His grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, she was liberated on the 13th, and her tatooed arm numbers added up to 13.

Zach Veach, Dan Towriss and Michael Andretti

Zach Veach, Dan Towriss and Michael Andretti

Next year Andretti Autosport can boast being the only IndyCar team which has an all-American driver lineup – four drivers.And they’re all on multi-year contracts. This is the first time team owner Michael Andretti has had all his drivers lined up and signed by the last race of the season. “It will be a good Christmas.”

Zach Veach, Dan Towriss and Michael Andretti

The newest addition, Zach Veach, came all the way up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder with Andretti Autosport, and somehow, Andretti knew that someday Veach would be back racing with his team.

Veach and Andretti have a long-term sponsorship agreement with One Thousand And One – a family of insurance companies based in Indianapolis. Dan Towriss, CEO, joined Veach and Andrtti for a media conference. Towriss said “We met Zach earlier this year and we formed a relationship and really just quickly identified in Zach a lot of shared values that are important to us, and as that relationship grew and the opportunity came to be involved with Michael and with Andretti Autosport, we just saw a match there for us that was perfect. We loved the way Zach will represent our brand, and we think, again, those shared values will be key to that.” Towriss wouldn’t go into specifics, but has several plans of how the company plans to activate the sponsorship of the insurance company, which focuses on retirement insurances, but is interested in expanding its reach. He wants to make it more intuitive and accessible. “There also will be activation on the philanthropy side which will involve Zach and what he represents: kind of being able to be involved in communities. We want to do well as a business, but we also want to make sure we’re giving back into the communities where we work and live, and Zach is going to be a big part of that.”

This finale race will award double points – 100 to the winner. Bonus points include one for pole position, one for leading at least one lap, and two points for leading the most laps. The points possibilities charts for the six mathematical contenders are mind-boggling.

A second practice session is set for Friday afternoon, in conditions most replicating qualifying and race conditions. Saturday morning IndyCar has its last practice session, with qualifying Saturday afternoon.

Points Possibility Charts

TESTY THURSDAY

Team Penske Contenders

Team Penske Contenders. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Thursday was an open test day for all 22 of the Verizon IndyCar drivers at Sonoma Raceway. Yes, I said 22 drivers. Rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo, of Canada, has joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the weekend in No.13 Paysafe Honda, adding one more car to the usual 21.

The weather was sunny and breezy, with mild temperatures. Fourteen drivers were on course in the morning session, with laps varying between four by three drivers to the 32 for Rookie DeMelo. Those who held back said they were waiting for the warmer afternoon temperatures which would be more ideal – more closely resemble the Saturday mid-afternoon Qualifying session or the mid-afternoon Sunday race. Among those who didn’t run in the morning session were four of the five Championship contenders Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda; and three of the four Team Penske Chevrolet drivers, Josef Newgarden/No.2 Hum by Verizon, Simon Pagenaud/No.1 DXC Technology, and Helio Castroneves/No.3.

Four sets of tires were allotted to each driver for the six-hour test, and of these three must be returned to Firestone at the end of the day. One set can be carried over as scuffs for the rest of the weekend. For the weekend, the teams are given seven sets of tires,

The primary and alternative tires Firestone brought to Sonoma are the same as for this year’s Barber race, which Firestone Chief Engineer Cara Adams said is more durable than last year’s primary compound. The 2017 Sonoma alternative tire is similar to last year’s primary tire. The drivers often characterize Sonoma as an abrasive surface, tough on tire degradation.

Josef Newgarden carrying Will Power

Scott Dixon. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

The contenders joined the media for brief availability during the lunch break, with Dixon coming first, followed later by the Penske Posse.

Dixon said that the tire carryover rule was changed, which shortened the teams’ allotments even further. He waited out the morning, while his three teammates ran. Dixon said they would gather data, and prep during the lunch break, for the afternoon session. “Today is just about trying to understand the car as best as possible, try and get some data for the weekend. But, you know, as far as the race goes, it’s going to be more about trying to eliminate silly mistakes and situations that we can control.”

Castroneves said “We’re just waiting for the weather to be at least closer to what it will be in qualifying or tomorrow’s practice or race. As we all know, the track is very challenging, plus abrasive, which is difficult when you trying something with the tires after about five or six laps, already going to the next level. So you always got to keep that on mind. Right now I think not only ourselves but everyone, at least 10 other cars thinking the same way. As we going to go out, the track going to get better, even with the weather. It will be interesting to see this afternoon for sure. But it’s a lot of time.”

Pagenaud said “The goal is to go for the championship, especially with a great Team Penske that we’re all on. The goal is to come back and win another championship.”

Josef Newgarden carrying Will Power

Newgarden & Power. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

It was variations on a theme when the four Penske drivers were asked about going for the win vs the championship. Basically go for the win and the championship will sort out, and it’s important that the Championship go to Team Penske. And Power and Newgarden proved they have each other’s back. Newgarden said “Oh, it’s business as usual. I think that’s the way Team Penske operates. It’s also what’s helped us have so much success this year, is that’s the way we operate. It seems to make us better every weekend. I think we’re going to need to work together if we want to be better than the field. It’s not going to be, in my opinion, straightforward or easy to be better than everyone this weekend.”

Despite only running four laps in the morning, Will Power/No.11 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was the fastest in the test, at 109.922 mph/1:18. Seven drivers turned laps of 109+ mph.

By mid-afternoon, a couple of drivers went on course, and then the course went Red to rescue Alexander Rossi/No.98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Andretti Autosport Honda, who had stalled on course. It was 71 degrees F ambient and 108 F on track at 3pm, for the few drivers on course. More were waiting it out in pit lane, umbrellas and all. The second Red Flag was to tow in Charlie Kimball/No.83 Tresiba Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Honda.

In other news, JR Hildebrand/No.21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet and the team have confirmed that Hildebrand won’t be returning full time to the team next season, although he could run a third team car in the Indianapolis 500. Spencer Pigot will race the No.21 full-time next season.

Zach Veach was announced this week as the newest member of Andretti Autosport in No.26. His teammates will be Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Veach progressed up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder with Andretti Autosport and drove for AJ Foyt Racing at this year’s Indy 500, finishing 26th.

There are other seats in flux,

Also on track Thursday for testing were the young lions in the Formula Car Challenge presented by Goodyear Series. Sixteen drivers – fifteen fellows and one sixteen-year old gal, mentored by Lyn St James, took to the track.

Everything starts in earnest Friday, with two IndyCar practices, and an IndyCar Pit Stop practice. Also running will be Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge, World Challenge, and Formula Car Challenge. The track will be busy non-stop from 8:15am to 6:10pm, ending with the two-seater IndyCar rides. The weather is forecast to be warmer.