IZOD IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma Preview and Writer's Pool

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IZOD IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma Preview and Writer's Pool
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Dario and Will celebrate with fans at MidOhio

The drivers of the IZOD Indycar Series head to America’s wine country this weekend, where they will be turning right for the final time this season, as the series wraps up its road and street course schedule with the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.

The race will unfold in the Sonoma valley, the heart of wine country roughly thirty miles north of San Francisco.  With just five races left in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series, points are at a premium, and points leader Will Power must gather as many as possible.

Power clinched the Mario Andretti Championship trophy at Mid-Ohio, proving he is the king of road and street course racing in 2010.  He has won four road and street courses, while claiming six poles on the twisty courses. 

The addition of his pole at Iowa, Power has won seven Peak Pole Awards this year, gaining himself seven bonus points in the overall championship chase.  Those seven Peak Pole Awards tie the record set by Helio Castroneves, with Power having five more chances to claim sole title in the record books.

Dario Franchitti is nipping at his heals in the overall championship however, just 41 points behind the leader.  Franchitti is a complete driver, excelling on both oval and road courses, while Power had yet to show true prowess on the oval courses in the series. 

With the final four races being held on the ovals at Chicago, Kentucky, Motegi, and Homestead-Miami, the championship battle is likely to go down to the wire.

 

For Austrialian Will Power though, Infineon Raceway in Sonoma holds an entirely different meaning.  In the 2009 season, while racing part time for Penske Racing after filling in for Helio Castroneves, Power attempted his second run at Sonoma. 

His first, in 2008 with KV Racing Technologies, started well but ended with Power sliding off course and finishing near the rear of the field.  2009 saw a renewed vigor from Power, after winning a race in his part time ride and showing overall skill in the car, he came to Sonoma hoping to place on the podium.

A crash in practice put those hopes to rest however.  Ahead of him, Nelson Philippe had spun his car, on the downside of an elevation on the track.  EJ Viso clipped Philippe after coming over the hill, but Will Power came next and T-Boned Philippe’s car. 

Both had to be taken to the emergency care center.  Power would suffer several injuries, the worst of which was a broken back that ended his 2009 season. He has fought back hard to become the best driver on the road and street courses, and this weekend will be an opportunity for him to come full circle.

Power lead all drivers during an August 13th test at the track, and has conquered any fear that came from the horrific crash last season.  “I went into the even at Sonoma last year wanting to win and I did not get the opportunity to race, because of the accident.  I am going into the weekend determined to drive the Verizon Team Penske car into Victory Circle.”

The other drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series hope to keep Power in check, and contain his lead on the overall points championship.  Franchitti is the closest driver to Power at the moment, but with a full field expected the rest of the way, one mishap could heavily bunch the field in the championship.

Franchitti has to feel good about his chances coming into Infineon.  The Scotsman captured the pole for the races in both 2007 and 2009 at the track, while setting the lap record with his qualifying run in 2009. He drove to victory from the pole in 2009, one of two wins and three pole awards at the track for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sonoma is a unique track in the IZOD Indycar Series in that during its five years on the schedule, there are no repeat winners.  Andretti Green Racing took the first two races at the track, with Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti earning victories, currently the lone victory for Andretti in the series.  Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves won the next two years before Franchitti broke through August of last year.

All five drivers will compete this weekend to earn their second victory at the track, while twenty other will attempt to garner their first IZOD Indicator victory at the track formerly known as Sears Point. 

Current IZOD IndyCar drivers Marco Andretti, Alex Lloyd, and J.R. Hildebrand all claimed victory at the track in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, with Hildebrand serving as the current champion.

Hildebrand returns this week to Dreyer and Reinbold Racing to complete his second road race in a row with the team.  Hildebrand, a California native, is filling in for the injured Mike Conway.  The team has yet to announce any plans for Hildebrand or the No. 24 car beyond the race at Sonoma, except that they will run the car at the remaining four ovals.

There are several layouts for the Infineon track, with the IZOD IndyCar Series using part of the traditional ‘long course’ which is different from the NASCAR race held at the track in the early summer.  The course the series will race on this weekend is a 2.303 mile, 12 turn adventure that is a very technical track with tight corners and some high speed areas.

Newman Haas driver Graham Rahal describes the course, "The track has a very good combination of very high speed and slow speed corners. Some of the corners are extremely tight to be honest. I like the high speed corners like Turns 2 and 3, I believe. I think that the higher the speed, the more fun and risky so I enjoy those areas. Again the slower speed stuff doesn't excite me all that much, but it's the same for everyone."

Sonoma is a very small course for the cars, and passing opportunities will be at a premium, so the drives must take full advantage of them while they can.  Similar to Mid-Ohio, Infineon is a purpose built road course in the hills of the countryside.  Sonoma is consistently considered one of the most attractive locations for the series, with a beautiful facility and the local wine scene to entice fans and sponsors alike.

When the drivers are able to pass, look for the main passing to be in turns two and four.  Drivers will try to beat each other into turn two and out accelerate each other after exiting turn four.  Hairpins at turn seven and eleven could also provide passing opportunities if the car in front slips up heading into the tight corners.  Drivers will have to be very careful here though, because a wrong move could quickly end their days.

 

The race also marks a potential milestone for fan favorite Danica Patrick.  Patrick has been running at the completion of 28 straight races, which ties her with a mark previously set by Scott Dixon for the series record.  If she is able to cross the finish line at Sonoma intact, she will gain full possession of the record. 

The action all takes place over the weekend in and around the city of San Francisco and in the Napa Valley.  For those lucky enough to be in the area for the race, look for events all over San Francisco, and through the wine valley for the entire weekend. 

Live coverage of the race can be seen beginning at 5pm eastern time Sunday on the Versus television network.  Versus will also show the majority of qualifying starting at 6pm ET on Saturday.

Full coverage of qualifying, which starts at 5:30pm ET on Saturday can be seen on www.indycar.com or heard through the IMS Radio Network.  Tune in and enjoy the final road course of the season before the series heads to high speed 1.5 mile ovals to close the season.

So without further preview, we present our writers picks for this weekends race.

Chad Smith...ed note, Chad will be rock starring it in Bristol this weekend, be sure and follow him for all your updates.

First to crash: EJ Viso
I see this year’s event going much like last year’s race for EJ…

Dark Horse: Justin Wilson
The past two races here have provided Justin with two top-ten finishes. He started last year’s race in 22nd and finished seventh.

3rd Place: Will Power
Let’s be honest, he’s been the hottest driver this year, and has dominated the road courses like no other. To the surprise of many, he has never finished better than 23rd at Sonoma. In 2008 he finished 25th, and last year he finished 23rd. I think he will do much…much..much better this season.

2nd Place: Ryan Briscoe
Two is just Ryan’s magical number here at Sonoma. In 2008 he started in second, finished second. Last year, he started second, finished second. I predict the trend will continue this year.

Race Winner: Dario Franchitti
He knows he has some catching up to do in order to get Power, even though he looks to have an advantage with all of the ovals coming up. Dario’s last four races here, he has finished eighth, second, third, and first, as he won from the pole last season.

Ryan P Worden  I will be in Sonoma this weekend to bring you all the news.

Winner: Scott Dixon.  Dixon needs to win this one (and keep Power in the rear) to get back into the championship race.  Scott has a history of being very clutch (with the exception of the 2007 series finale), and I like him to get his second win of the year and second win at this track.

Place: Dario Franchitti.  He has always been fast here, and will try to be again.  Dixon and Franchitti need to stay ahead of Power, and they should be working together to try and score a great finish.

Show:  Will Power.  Pretty boring pick, but Power is simply amazing on road and street courses right now.  The only way he misses the podium is if last years crash enters his mind.

Dark Horse: Simona DeSilvestro.  Simona in Sonoma...I like it.  She has been pretty good the last several races, and is looking for a break through.  If she can get into the top five at Sonoma, she should be able to hold onto it.

First to Crash:  Mario Moraes.  He has really been struggling lately with keeping the car under control.  KV probably doesn't want ot imagine another wreck, but at least both Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven own wineries in Napa Valley to drown their sorrows.

 

Christopher Leone

Win: Will Power. It’s his weekend to celebrate being the best road course driver in the series. Might as well win the race so the trophy celebration isn’t awkward.
 

Place: Dario Franchitti. Once again, good, but not quite good enough this year.

 

Show: Alex Tagliani. Very, very fast in practice, a road course ace, and finally had a decent finish last race weekend with his fourth at Mid-Ohio.

 

Dark Horse: J.R. Hildebrand. It’s his home track, the car finished third in this race last year with the now-injured Mike Conway, and Captain America could use a great finish to stay in the car until Conway’s ready/start attracting teams for 2011.

 

First to Crash: Alex Lloyd. Sorry. Felt bad picking Takuma Sato.

 

Conrtol Pick:  Our control of Steve returns this week, as he is a resident of CA.  He will be attending his first IZOD IndyCar race this weekend.

Win:  Justin Wilson  I was shocked Steve was able to pick a reasonable, meaningful pick for the win.  Wilson is a great road racer and could come through for him.  But he does have a torn ligament in his thumb from Mid-Ohio and will have to overcome that.  All in all, I cannot make fun of this pick, but there are more coming...

Second: Scott Dixon:  Appears to be another solid pick.  Dixon is the iceman and tough to pick against or make too much fun of (aside from being stale in interviews).  But this pick gets much better.

Third:  Mario Moraes:  The reason Steve told me...  Moraes looks slightly insane based off his picture and that works in San Francisco.  No real arguments with the reason, but I am going to be shocked if Moraes can finish this race without hurting his car and several others.

Dark Horse:  Wayne Brady.  We are all going to be horribly shocked if Wayne Brady somehow manages to both enter and get a top five  in the race.  This might be the dark horse pick of the year.

First to Crash:  (this is where it gets interesting.)  This is the message I received from Steve on his crash pick.

"Scott Dixon:  I think he'll crash 30 feet from the finish line and his wreck will slide in for 2nd."  I asked if he had ever seen the movie Driven, the answer I was given is no.  So apparently it was so easy to write the movie Driven that a person who has never seen a race before could come up with their plot twists... bravo Stalone.

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