The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season comes to a close next weekend at Sonoma, where a champion will be crowned. There are seven contenders who could mathematically take home the title after Sunday’s race. Josef Newgarden holds a three point lead over Scott Dixon heading into the weekend, with double points being awarded to the drivers.
Looking at the race itself, there are a few key areas to watch. The first comes in qualifying on Saturday, where teams and drivers will surely be putting it all on the line when it comes to their car setup. Track position is incredibly important here, as it is extremely difficult to pass on the 2.303-mile road course. Five of the last nine races at Sonoma have been won by the pole sitter. In fact, the winner has started inside the top three in 10 of the 12 races.
Another important aspect of the event is strategy. Tires, weather, and pit sequence is always a big part of a race, as fuel mileage can quickly become the hot topic. The weather should be fine, but making the right decisions on the pit box will play a major role in determining how the race and championship play out. Lets look at the contenders.
The second half of the season has been everything Newgarden could have hoped for after joining Team Penske. Despite his major setback exiting pit lane at Watkins Glen, he has still won three of the last five races. No one has more wins or podium finishes than Newgarden, but history isn’t on his side. He hasn’t started on pole all season, and in five starts at Sonoma, he has never finished inside the top five. He’ll need to do that on Sunday to earn his first IndyCar title.
The 26-year old from Nashville knows who is behind him, and what they have accomplished already in their careers. “There’s a lot of good guys that you’re going up against, so I don’t think it’s just limited to Scott, but for sure trying to beat all those guys, and hopefully if we’re able to do it, it’s going to feel great,” Newgarden said. Still, he knows he is in a great position come Sunday. “We can control our own destiny, it’s in our hands to make it happen.”
There isn’t much left to say about Dixon that already hasn’t been acknowledged. He is widely regarded as the best driver in the series, and has already earned legendary status. The four-time series champion obviously knows how to close the deal, and is no stranger to this track. In his 12 starts at Sonoma, The Iceman has three wins, three more top five finishes, and has led 121 laps. He only has one victory this season, and the last time he failed to win multiple races in a season was 2005. If he keeps that streak alive on Sunday, he will also claim his fifth series title.
Helio Castroneves trails his Penske teammate by 22 points heading into the season finale. It’s a very interesting situation for the Brazilian driver, as this will likely be his last IndyCar race outside of the Indianapolis 500. His 20-year career in open wheel has had some fantastic moments, most notably his three Indianapolis 500 wins. His 50 career poles and four runner-up finishes in the championship standings are also well documented. Still, the fact remains that he has never won the title, and this is his last opportunity to do so. Castroneves won this race from pole position in 2008, and finished runner-up on two occasions. If he can pull it off on Sunday, it will be the ultimate storybook ending.
Simon Pagenaud has some work to do if he is able to repeat as champion this year. The Penske driver sits 34 points behind Newgarden, and is the defending race winner as well. After winning five races last season, Pagenaud has just one victory this year, back in April at Phoenix. He will definitely need some help to get the job done this weekend, but he is clearly in the mix. As a side note, Simon is the only driver to have completed every lap this season. If he can finish them all on Sunday, he will join Tony Kanaan (2004) as the only driver in IndyCar history to complete every lap in a season.
Will Power’s chances at the title likely were erased at Gateway when he crashed in the opening laps. He trails Newgarden by 68 points, and while it is definitely possible, it is also highly unlikely. That won’t slow the Aussie though, as he can still win his fourth race of the 2017 season. This is also a place that Power has flexed his muscle. He has three wins at Sonoma, and has started from pole five times in his eight starts, leading 276 laps.
No driver can match the roll that Alexander Rossi has been on in the last month. After bad luck ruined his good runs early in the year, the tide has turned. The last five finishes for Rossi are 2nd, 6th, 3rd, 6th, and 1st. His win in the last race at Watkins Glen came just 24 hours after earning his first career pole. Days before that, he signed a two-year extension with Andretti Autosport. He is 84 points behind, but he certainly has come a long way in just his second season.
The final driver in the hunt for the title is Graham Rahal. He does need a miracle, being 94 points behind, but it is a reflection of the great season that he has had. Without a teammate to work with at RLL Racing, Graham has excelled each and every weekend, and has been tremendous since the Indy 500 in May. If he can have one more solid weekend, he could finish in the top five of the championship standings for the second consecutive season.
Each scenario is very interesting, as four of these drivers would become first-time champions if they were to win. One of those is Castroneves, which would be even more interesting given the numerous times he came up just short. That would be the ultimate ride off into the sunset for the beloved veteran driver. A second title for Power or Pagenaud would mean a lot of drama would have to take place at Sonoma, which is always good. Lastly, seeing Dixon grab a fifth title would be just as cool, especially after everything he endured on and off the track this past May at Indianapolis.
For the 12th straight year, the championship has come down to the final race of the season.
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion will be crowned next weekend, putting another outstanding season in the books. NBC Sports Network’s coverage of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma begins at 6:30 PM ET on Sunday.