This weekend is the close of the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s Verizon’s last stand as series sponsor – Sonoma Raceway’s finale as the site of the season closer in its now-15 years of hosting the series. This year marks the 13th consecutive time the championship is still in play heading into the last race of the year.
Hard to believe there have been 16 races since the 17-race campaign began on the street/airport course in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 11. From a slow start to the year, the season has bounded by with eight drivers earning victories – from five different teams.
Four drivers are still mathematically eligible to take the Vanderbilt Cup after 85 laps of battling between 25 drivers on the 2.385-mile, 12-turn undulating road course. Each eligible driver has already earned three victories on the year, with Kiwi Scott Dixon, a four-time INDYCAR champion with Chip Ganassi Racing leading second-year standout, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, by a scant 29 points. If Rossi were to overcome that deficit, he’d become the first American to take the title since teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2012 championship season.
Behind this Honda-powered duo lie two potent Chevrolet-branded Team Penske drivers: 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power and reigning Verizon IndyCar Series titleholder Josef Newgarden. The gap between first and fourth places is a scant 87 points in a contest that pays double points to the all 25 entries; Power has claimed pole in five of the last eight contests; Team Penske has won at this track seven times, including six of the last eight season closers.
There are eight rookies in the race – but not the Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Robert Wickens, who remains in Indianapolis recovering from his Pocono injuries – and two are making their Indy car debuts in the Wine Country. This will be Dale Coyne Racing’s Sangino Ferrucci’s fourth race with the team, while teammate Pietro Fittipaldi competes for the sixth time on Sunday. Jack Harvey is finishing the year with Meyer Shank Racing, as are Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King, Matheus Leist with A.J. Foyt Racing and Andretti Autosport’s rapidly improving Zach Veach.
New to INDYCAR are Harding Racing’s true rookies and graduates of the Mazda Road to Indy (MRTI) ladder system, as that Japanese manufacturer bids farewell to the competition it’s backed for a long time. Patricio O’Ward, who captured the Indy Lights title over Andretti Autosport (with Steinbrenner Racing) teammate Colton Herta, will debut with INDYCAR this weekend with Harding, which has been rotating MRTI graduate drivers (Gabby Chaves and Conor Daly) over the second half of the season as it prepares to enter two Chevy-powered cars next year.
With 25 entries on an admittedly difficult track for overtaking, there could be plenty of whining in the Wine Country this weekend. The track has difficult sightlines and even the best spotters atop its hills can’t always give direction to the drivers below. They’ll have to trust one another.
Yet with so many exceptional teams and drivers – you don’t have that many winners in a season without great racecraft – it’s going to be difficult to place odds. The race kicks off on NBCSN at 6:30PM EDT for 85 laps of adrenaline-enhanced competition. Who will win? You’ll have to show up or tune in to find out.