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RHR Hunts Down Pole At IndyCar Season-Ender

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 16 2018

Ryan Hunter-Reay will start Sunday’s IndyCar Series season finale from P1.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Ryan Hunter-Reay blocked-out the hype surrounding the chase for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series title Saturday to concentrate on the tasks at-hand _ winning pole position for the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma and denying championship leader Scott Dixon of a potentially critical point.

The Andretti Autosport veteran won the Verizon P1 Award for the season-ender with a dramatic last lap flyer during knockout qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six. Hunter-Reay toured Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile/12-turn natural terrain road-course in 1 minute, 17.6277-seconds and 110.605 mph to earn P1 for Sunday’s 85-lap/202.7-miler.

In doing so, Hunter-Reay prevented championship leader Dixon from earning the bonus point awarded the fastest qualifier. Dixon will still take a 29-point advantage over Alexander Rossi, Hunter-Reay’s teammate, into a race offering double points. Dixon’s clearest path to a fifth series championship is to finish either first or second, as the winner will earn 100 points and second place will pay 80. Dixon will clinch the championship by finishing ahead of Rossi and no lower than 21st place.

RHR admittedly has alternate priorities. “I’m just focusing on winning the race. That’s all I can focus on, that’s all I can do,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion. “I’ll race like I always do, go for a win. That’s our only objective. That’s my only objective. That’s the only reason why I’m here.”

Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power also remain mathematically alive in the title chase, each 87 points behind Dixon, as the IndyCar Series champion will be decided at the last race of the season for the 13th consecutive year.

Qualifying, however, belonged to Hunter-Reay, who picked up the seventh pole of his INDYCAR career and first since the Streets of Long Beach in April 2014.

“This (No.) 28 DHL Honda team did just such a good job putting a great car under me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s nice to finally get that pole at Sonoma because we’ve been knocking on the door for it for years, so definitely a good team effort. I’m certainly doing my part (to help Rossi); I just took a point away from Dixon, so we’re doing everything we can do.”

Dixon, of Chip Ganassi Racing, will start second after a lap of 1:17.7599/110.417 mph in the No. 9 Honda. A fifth series championship would place Dixon behind only open-wheel icon A.J. Foyt Jr. (seven) for most season titles in INDYCAR history.

“I think everybody at this level understands what they need to do. Everybody gets nervous,” said Dixon, sizing up his title rivals. “You’re in a competitive environment, one that I really enjoy, sometimes thrive on. Sometimes it’s better not having been in a situation because you don’t know what to expect, you don’t get preset on too many things. I think it can go either way.

As all of us (contenders), everybody wants to win the race. The DHL car is really fast, I think it should take the victory. Will look good there in winner’s circle. We’ll try to do the same if that comes.”

Dixon momentarily lamented an off into the dirt on his final lap that he felt definitely cost him pole. “We’ll have to chalk that up to ‘driver error,’^” Dixon said. “I had a lap going that would have gotten the pole, but I just made a mistake and it cost us.

“I don’t know, we’ve really sucked in road-course qualifying this year. So it was nice to actually make it to the Fast Six. I think it’s only my second time this year. Street courses where we haven’t typically been good, we’ve been good throughout the season. Nice to finish on a strong note for qualifying.

“We’ve had a fast car all weekend here at Sonoma and we’ve stayed at the pointy-end of the field since we unloaded. Hopefully, that will continue in the race and we can finish the season strong.”

Rossi, Power and Newgarden all will be within arm’s reach of Dixon when the green flag drops on the Northern California layout that will host the season-finale for the fourth and final year. The race also will mark the end of Verizon’s tenure as series title sponsor.

Rossi will start sixth in the No. 27 Honda at 1:18.0019/110.074 mph after opting for Firestone’s black-sidewall primary tires in the Fast Six instead of the traditional choice of softer red-sidewall alternates.

“I don’t think we had the pace for Ryan, but we decided to try something different and see where it got us,” said Rossi, second-guessing that decision. “I don’t see us starting behind Dixon (as) that big of an issue. We just need to make sure we build a good race car and make sure we do the best job that we can and extract the most out of the (No.) 27.”

Reigning series champion Newgarden qualified third in the No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet after lapping at 1:17.7937/110.369 mph. Teammate Power qualified a season-worst seventh in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet at 1:17.6495/110.574 mph. Saturday marked the only time this season that Power did not advance into the Firestone Fast Six on a road or street course.

“I was most excited for the Fast Six,” Newgarden said. “I thought that would be where we would shine the most. Third is not always what you want. I mean, if you’re in the Fast Six, you hope to get the pole. I think we had some potential on it. We were on a pretty good lap. Rossi just layered Turn 9 with dust. We lost some time. I think we were tight on Hunter-Reay’s time. You don’t know what it would have been. It wasn’t enough.”

Like Rossi, Power questioned his qualifying strategy. “We unfortunately should have gone another lap (in Round 2),” said Power, the 2014 series champion and winner of last May’s 102nd Indianapolis 500. “We were trying to save our tires for the Fast Six, but it was just a bad call. Unbelievable when you think about our qualifying record this year, but that’s how it goes.”

In addition to paying 100 points to the winner and 80 for second place, points slide down to 10 for 25th position. Rossi could claim his first title under numerous scenarios finishing ahead of Dixon, the simplest by winning the race and Dixon placing third or worse without collecting the two bonus points for leading the most laps. For Newgarden or Power to win the championship, they must win the race, have Dixon finish no better than 24th (and not lead the most laps) and Rossi finish no better than 10th.

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 ‘06, 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).

Meanwhile, Marco Andretti reached the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in 2018, qualifying fourth in the No. 98 Honda. “I think this U.S. Concrete/Curb team did a really good job with staying with the track,” Andretti said. “We learned a really tough lesson on (Firestone alternate red tires) yesterday; we were 16th. We were able to get within a tenth-and-a-half, but that’s not good enough. When Dixon sent it off (during the Fast Six), I thought that was my shot at pole because he would’ve lost his laps, but that wasn’t in the cards. Luckily, Ryan stole the point from Dixon.”

Patricio O’Ward, the recently crowned Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion making his IndyCar Series debut, continued to impress in the No. 8 Harding Group Chevrolet. O’Ward, a native of Mexico living in San Antonio, Texas, advanced into the Fast Six and qualified fifth at 1:17.9737/110.114 mph. It is the best qualifying effort for Harding Racing during its first fulltime series season.

“I honestly don’t know what to think about it,” said O’Ward, 19. “When I saw that I moved into the Fast Six, I thought, ‘Newgarden, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Rossi _ such big names, you’ve been looking at them for years and years and years.’ It’s something that you have to start believing that you can be like them, that you can beat them _ that you can give them a run for their money. It’s a new feeling.”

Dixon, who is in his 17th consecutive season with Ganassi’s championship-winning organization, continued to praise O’Ward’s debut weekend in the series. “I think you got to give a lot of credit to O’Ward, man. A job well-done,” Dixon said. “It’s cool to see the opportunity that him and Colton Herta are getting. It’s not too often that you see that. Yeah, he’s (O’Ward) done a hell of a job. I hope he doesn’t collect me! If he does, I can’t help that. It’s just one of those things.”

Live coverage of the event, including the post-race championship presentation, will begin at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) Sunday on NBC Sports Network and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. 

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Qualifying results Saturday for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma on the 2.385-mile/12-turn Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, engine, time/speed:

  1. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:17.6277/110.605 mph
  2. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 01:17.7599/110.417
  3. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:17.7937/110.369
  4. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:17.7999/110.360
  5. (8) Patricio O’Ward-(R), Chevrolet, 01:17.9737/110.114
  6. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:18.0019/110.074
  7. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:17.6495/110.574
  8. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:17.7489/110.432
  9. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:17.9043/110.212
  10. (26) Zach Veach-(R), Honda, 01:17.9111/110.203
  11. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 01:17.9242/110.184
  12. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:17.9919/110.088
  13. (19) Pietro Fittipaldi-(R), Honda, 01:18.5281/109.337
  14. (10) Ed Jones, Honda, 01:18.5088/109.364
  15. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:18.5740/109.273
  16. (60) Jack Harvey-(R), Honda, 01:18.5892/109.252
  17. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:18.6687/109.141
  18. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 01:18.5966/109.241
  19. (88) Colton Herta-(R), Chevrolet, 01:18.6823/109.122
  20. (39) Santino Ferrucci-(R), Honda, 01:18.6172/109.213
  21. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 01:18.7536/109.024
  22. (6) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 01:18.7211/109.069
  23. (4) Matheus Leist-(R), Chevrolet, 01:18.9665/108.730
  24. (23) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 01:18.8495/108.891
  25. (20) Jordan King-(R), Chevrolet, 01:19.1519/108.475

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

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 16 2018
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