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Top Drivers Remain Top Drivers At Sonoma

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 15 2018

Scott Dixon is looking fast in the season-ending IndyCar race in Sonoma. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Two sessions of practice Friday for the season-ending INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma did little to separate the four remaining contenders for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Point-leader Scott Dixon was third on the combined-session time sheet at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California. The four-time series champion from Chip Ganassi Racing was sandwiched by Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Will Power _ each 87 points behind Dixon and admittedly harboring slim title hopes.

Meanwhile, championship runnerup Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport _ 29 points out of the lead _ came within a half-second of the other contenders while winding up 11th on the combined sheet.

With double the normal race points to be awarded Sunday, the title outcome remains in doubt heading into Saturday’s knockout qualifying session. Dixon’s clearest path to a fifth series championship is to finish first or second, as the winner will earn 100 points and second place will pay 80.

“Conditions were a little tough today and we’re down around 30-40 percent overall on downforce compared to last year,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Honda. “(Saturday) could be different and tricky. You have to get the braking right for sure. There was a cool spread on the time sheets today _ and it was pretty cool seeing an Indy Lights champion (Patricio O’Ward) up there mixing it up.

“I also think the temperature is going to play a huge part in what tires you take. We’ll take a look at it and see what we need to do in order to make some gains for qualifying in the PNC Bank car.”

Newgarden, the reigning series champion, set the fast lap of the second practice at 1-minute, 17.8156- seconds/110.338 mph in the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet. That lap ranked second on the combined speed chart for two sessions around the 2.385-mile/12-turn permanent road-course.

“It was difficult this afternoon, to be honest,” said Newgarden, who was ill Thursday night and did not run a lap in the first practice due to fuel pressure issues with the car. “When I first went out, I wasn’t very happy (with) the first run, and then we made really good progress the second run.”

Power, the 2014 series champion, placed fourth in both practices and settled in at fourth on the combined time sheet. His best lap of 1:17.8818/110.244 mph in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet was logged in the morning session.

“It’s just a matter of who got a clean lap and who didn’t,” Power said. “You’ve literally got two (peak) laps on tires and then it’s done. If you didn’t get it done at that point, you’re never going to get it.”

Rossi felt his Andretti crew made progress with the No. 27 Honda from the first practice, when he was eighth, to the second, when he ran sixth. At 11th on the combined chart, the native Californian was far from discouraged.

“This place changes so quickly, and so often that what you have one day doesn’t necessarily transfer completely to the next day,” Rossi said. “We definitely have some work to do overnight and need to put our heads together. It’s not the first time we’ve had a bad Friday, so I have a lot of confidence in the (No.) 27 NAPA team.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi’s Andretti teammate, posted best lap of the day during the opening practice. Hunter-Reay toured the Sonoma circuit in 1:17.5742/110.681 mph in the No. 28 Honda.

“It was a good start to the day; we were P1 this morning and overall,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champ. “We went to some pretty aggressive changes this afternoon, knowing that Practice 2 was our last opportunity to do it before qualifying. We made some changes, got aggressive with it and it was the wrong way, so we’ll make some changes and head back to where we were in Practice 1 and hopefully get the DHL car back to its good form.”

O’Ward _ the aforementioned newly crowned Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion making his IndyCar Series debut _ was a surprising third in P2. The 19-year-old native of Mexico turned a best lap of 1:18.0073/110.067 mph in the No. 8 Chevrolet.

“It was a pretty good day and I’m very satisfied with how we ended,” said O’Ward, a resident of San Antonio, Texas. “The first practice felt like a shot out of a cannon because there were so many (more) cars out there than what I was used to, and I didn’t get any clean running.

“I’m happy I got some clean running in Practice 2. We were working hard on getting the car right for qualifying, so we were on the (alternate) red tires for most of practice. It feels really good, so now we’re going to work on the (primary) black tires to get ready for the race setup. As of now, I’m very satisfied with today.”

The 29 points separating Dixon and Rossi is the fifth-largest margin with one race to go since 2006. The closest margin with one race to go was 2006, when Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves led Sam Hornish Jr. by one point. The average deficit with one-to-go since 2008 is 20.3 points.

Dixon has seven top-five finishes in 13 Sonoma starts, including wins in 2007, 2014 and 2015. Rossi finished fifth in his first start at Sonoma in 2016 while Power has five podium results in nine starts, including wins in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Newgarden has one top-five finish at Sonoma. He recorded his best finish (second) in six starts in 2017.

While Rossi will be chasing his first series title, Dixon will take the point lead into one-to-go for the fifth time in his stellar career. Dixon, who took the championship lead following his win in the annual June night race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, won championships in three of the previous four seasons in which he led with one race to go (2003, 2008 and 2013).

Sunday’s race, scheduled for 85 laps/202.7-miles, will mark the 13th consecutive year the series champion will be determined at the final event of the season. Additionally, the winning driver at Sonoma has claimed the championship three times in the prior 14 races _Dario Franchitti in 2009, Dixon in 2015 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016.

A final practice is set for 2 p.m. (EDT) Saturday and will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Verizon P1 Award qualifying starts at 6 p.m. Saturday and will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, with a same-day telecast at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Network.

Sunday’s live race coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Spencer Pigot will return to Ed Carpenter Racing as driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet for the full 17-race 2019 Verizon IndyCar Series season, marking his fourth year with the team and in the series. Pigot’s first fulltime campaign in 2018 has included career-best qualifying and finishing positions on street courses, road courses and ovals, including his first podium result.

“I’m extremely happy to be returning to Ed Carpenter Racing for the 2019 season,” Pigot said in a statement. “I have to thank Ed Carpenter, Stuart Reed and Tony George for giving me the opportunity to race for their team once again. It’s been great to compete in my first full-season of INDYCAR racing this year and I look forward to building on that next year. We have a lot to look back on and learn from; we will be working hard over the offseason and will be able to hit the ground running when we get to next season’s opener in St. Pete.”

Three of Pigot’s last six races have resulted in the three strongest results of his career. Pigot scored his first series podium with a second-place at Iowa Speedway, the fourth consecutive year ECR has had a driver finish first or second on the short oval. A sixth-place finish came on the Gateway Motorsports Park oval, followed by Pigot’s best career road-course finish one week later with a fourth at Portland International Raceway in Oregon.

“I’m really happy to have Spencer back in the No. 21 for the 2019 season,” said Carpenter, the series’ only owner/driver.  “We have always believed that Spencer has the potential to compete for race wins and championships and he has really showed that in the back half of this season.  Hopefully we can break through this weekend at the season -finale and get ECR back in the win column.”

While Carpenter split the No. 20 with Pigot in his first two seasons, 2018 was the first year the two raced alongside each other. “I’ve been able to learn so much from Ed, by him sharing his knowledge with me and just being on-track with him,” said Pigot, a 24-year-old native of Orlando, Fla. “Even though there were several ovals I hadn’t raced an Indy car on prior to this year, Ed helped me feel like I was a stronger driver each time out.”

Carpenter will continue to drive the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on ovals in 2019 for what will be his 17th year of INDYCAR competition. The road and street course driver for the No. 20 Chevrolet will be announced at a later date.  

Formed in late 2011, ECR entered the Verizon IndyCar Series fulltime in 2012.The team has collected seven wins on each type of track on which the series competes _ street and road-courses, short ovals and speedways.

ECR Chevrolets have started on the front row of the Indianapolis 500 five of the past six years, including Carpenter’s three pole positions. When he earned P1 for the 2018 Indy 500, Carpenter became just the 10th driver in the 102-year history of the race to earn three or more poles. The Indianapolis-based team has 25 top-five finishes to-date, 19 of which have been podiums. 

Friday’s combined practice results for the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma, season-ender for the Verizon IndyCar Series at the 2.385-mile/12-turn Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, with rank, car number, driver, engine, session, time/speed and total laps completed: 

  1. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, Practice 1, 01:17.5742-seconds/110.681 mph, 23
  2. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:17.8156/110.338, 22
  3. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, Practice 1, 01:17.8268/110.322, 29
  4. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:17.8818/110.244, 32
  5. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:17.9586/110.135, 30
  6. (8) Patricio O’Ward-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:18.0073/110.067, 38
  7. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.0878/109.953, 25
  8. (10) Ed Jones, Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.1385/109.882, 32
  9. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.1665/109.842, 35
  10. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, Practice 2, 01:18.2356/109.745, 33
  11. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.2738/109.692, 30
  12. (26) Zach Veach-(R), Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.3541/109.579, 36
  13. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.3709/109.556, 30
  14. (19) Pietro Fittipaldi-(R), Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.4442/109.454, 36
  15. (39) Santino Ferrucci-(R), Honda, Practice 2, 01:18.5961/109.242, 45
  16. (20) Jordon King-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:18.6350/109.188, 38
  17. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, Practice 2, 01:18.6790/109.127, 36
  18. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:18.7290/109.058, 25
  19. (6) Carlos Munoz, Honda, Practice 2, 01:18.7812/108.985, 32
  20. (88) Colton Herta-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:18.8261/108.923, 38
  21. (60) Jack Harvey-(R), Honda, Practice 1, 01:18.9310/108.779, 38
  22. (23) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:18.9638/108.733, 38
  23. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:19.0612/108.599, 31
  24. (4) Matheus Leist-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:19.0917/108.558, 38
  25. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, Practice 1, 01:19.1739/108.445, 34

Total Laps for Combined Sessions _ 824

Note _ All cars compete with Dallara chassis on Firestone tires; (R) _ denotes series rookie

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 15 2018
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