After a season long of competition stretching across the country, and beyond the borders at times, the Verizon IndyCar Series Championship comes down to 85 laps around the 2.385-mile permanent road course in Sonoma, California. With heavy hearts following Justin Wilson’s death, the stars of the series will chase for championship glory, and their final chance at victory before season’s end.
In a season marked by significant wins, Juan Pablo Montoya enters the finale with a lead of 34 points on Graham Rahal. Montoya has been solid all year, scoring a top-10 finish in each of the races this year, except for three. In a season marked by a high in winning the Indianapolis 500, it seems as though he is set to complete a successful transition back to open-wheel competition after spending some seasons in stock cars.
“Obviously the championship is important to everyone at Team Penske and our goal is to do our best to wrap that up at Sonoma this weekend, but it pales in comparison to the feeling we all have about losing our friend and competitor, Justin Wilson,” Montoya commented coming into the weekend. “I had the opportunity to compete with him in several different series, beginning in 1995 when I moved to Europe. He was the same guy then as he was when I came back into the Verizon IndyCar Series last year – always with a smile on his face but someone that was a great competitor on the track. The sport needs more like him and his loss is tremendous. I also have a wife and kids and I’m saddened for what they are going through.”
Montoya has only made one previous start at Sonoma, finishing fifth last season.
It would see that 34 points is enough to keep the lead, but this weekend’s event brings a unique element – double points are on the line. For certain pre-determined races this season, series officials are awarding double points. Therefore should Montoya run into problems while his title mates run cleanly, the gap could disappear immediately.
Graham Rahal is hoping to have a successful weekend and perhaps make that happen. Like Montoya, he has been solidly fast all season long, though has found some bad luck along the way, resulting in the championship gap. Rahal put himself into the discussion by picking up the win at Auto Club Speedway, and backing it up with another win and a pair of top-fives. Last weekend, things didn’t go as planned as an incident resulted in a 20th place finish, losing him valuable ground as he had entered Pocono sitting only nine points behind Montoya.
In his pre-race comments, he stated that Wilson was “a great guy, an incredible teammate, great father and a wonderful friend” and he’d forever cherish the time that they had together. He added that this weekend, “we will race to honor him”.
“Last year (at Sonoma), we got through a bunch of challenges and we were able to get to the front of the pack and lead a bunch of laps, but unfortunately we didn’t top off with fuel on one of the last yellows so while we led the last 18 laps we needed a yellow the entire time,” Rahal expressed. “We saved a lot of fuel and damn near made it, but we had to stop with a couple of laps to go for a splash of fuel. With that in mind, I feel pretty confident that we can have a similar sort of race this year in terms of running up front and being a contender. At this point we have to go there to win, we have no other choice. In order to beat (Juan Pablo) Montoya, we have no choice. We’re going to go all out, do the best we possibly can and see what happens. I still have a lot of confidence going into race weekend.”
In seven previous starts at Sonoma Raceway, Rahal has four top-10 finishes, highlighted by a fifth place finish in 2012.
2013 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion Scott Dixon currently sits third in points, 47 points behind, with a mathematical shot at the championship. The Ganassi Racing outfit struggled during the first half of the season, but 11 solid top-10 finishes, including two wins and a third, allowed Dixon to keep himself within striking distance. Like the others, the defending race winner’s thoughts are with the Wilson family and feels that this weekend in Sonoma, they will honor “Justin by doing what he loved to do – which is race”.
“Sonoma is huge for us from the standpoint that it’s Target’s biggest race too,” he added. “It’s a fantastic race and it’s been very exciting there the last few years. For us to win last year was really cool. It was kind of our turnaround on the season to try to regain some strength on what started out to be a pretty slow start to the year. I’m excited that Team Target is still in contention for the championship, with this being a double-points race. Hopefully we’ll be celebrating with a lot of wine in victory circle for a championship and a race victory.”
Team Penske has three drivers mathematically eligible as beyond Montoya leading the standings, defending series champion Will Power and last year’s runner-up Helio Castroneves each have a mathematical chance.
Power enters this weekend sitting 61 points behind Montoya – a much different picture than last year when he held an advantage going into the final event at Auto Club. The past couple of months haven’t gone as Power has wanted, with only two top-10s in the last five events. Though, perhaps the fourth place finish last weekend at Pocono Raceway has put his season back on track for a solid ending.
“The Verizon IndyCar Series is going into Sonoma with heavy hearts this weekend,” he said. “I had the pleasure – and I do mean pleasure – to race against Justin Wilson for many years in this series. To see how hard he worked was an inspiration to many people in the paddock. Justin was a great driver – a winning driver – but more than that he was just a fantastic human being. There is no other way to put it. My wife, Liz, worked with him for a couple of years so we became mates during our time together in the sport. This really hits home for both she and I. No one had a bad thing to say about Justin. No one. He will be sorely missed. My heart goes out to his family. We are all thinking about them.”
Power has won at Sonoma Raceway before, picking up his most recent win in wine country in 2013. In six previous starts, he has three wins, four top-fives and four top-10s for the second best average finish (6.7) of active drivers. He also led practice earlier today.
Castroneves, meanwhile, enters the weekend sitting 77 points outside of the championship lead. The Brazilian started off the season with a string of top-10s, though saw his consistency fall off during the summer months. With no top-10s in the last three events, he will certainly be looking to have a good run this weekend.
“We all know that we have a job to do this weekend at Sonoma, but it doesn’t make it any easier as we deal with the tragic loss of Justin Wilson,” he commented. “A friend to everyone in the paddock, Justin was the kind of race car driver that everyone should want to be. He was a winning driver, a fan favorite and someone that we were all proud to know. I raced with him for many years and never saw him do anything that would be considered out of line. He was a gentleman, both on and off the track, and I pray for the comfort of his family and friends.”
Castroneves has been solid at Sonoma over the years, posting seven top-10s in 10 starts, highlighted by a victory in 2008.
The last driver that has a chance at championship glory for the first time is CFH Racing’s Josef Newgarden. This season could be considered a break-out season as he snatched his first career victory in Birmingham, Alabama, before backing it up with second win on the streets of Toronto. Newgarden has ran up front throughout the season, just missing a bit of consistency, which has him sitting 87 points out of the lead.
“We all know that we have a job to do this weekend at Sonoma, but it doesn’t make it any easier as we deal with the tragic loss of Justin Wilson,” Newgraden sounded off coming into the weekend. “A friend to everyone in the paddock, Justin was the kind of race car driver that everyone should want to be. He was a winning driver, a fan favorite and someone that we were all proud to know. I raced with him for many years and never saw him do anything that would be considered out of line. He was a gentleman, both on and off the track, and I pray for the comfort of his family and friends.”
Each of the drivers will enter this weekend focused on being the first to the line for the checkered flag, and perhaps getting some added glory in championship form. When they strap into their cars, that will be focus – nothing else, not a thought to the previous course of events. Though in the moments leading up to that, certainly their colleague will be on their mind, and they’ll each try to be badass this weekend to honor Justin, following the motto – #BadassWilson.