IndyCar title fight comes down to Sonoma

As the NFL is gearing up for the season, and NASCAR is ready for its Chase for the Championship, the Verizon Indycar Season is winding down, as planned, before Labor Day.

The final race on the schedule, The Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma, will take place this weekend, with a season champion being crowned on Sunday afternoon. With any luck, we will have a longer season in 2016 and beyond, but, I’ll write about that on another day.

It will undoubtedly be a subdued celebration on Sunday as the close-knit family that is IndyCar are still mourning the loss of one of their own, Justin Wilson. The popular English driver lost his life following a freak on-track accident at Pocono Raceway less than a week ago.

All of the drivers will sport a special decal to honor their fallen friend, and a T-shirt has been commissioned to remember Justin Wilson. The shirt will be available for purchase at the track with 100% of the revenue going directly to a special fund that has been set up for Wilson’s two young daughters.

The shirts and decals may also be purchased here, again with all of the proceeds going directly the the Wilson Children’s Fund.

As difficult as it may seem to move forward in the wake of tragedy, the drivers of the Verizon IndyCar Series are dedicated to their sport, and the show will go on.

Penske Racing’s Juan Pablo Montoya has led the point standings since the opening round at St. Petersburg.  He had two wins early on the season, but has maintained the points lead through consistent finishes. When his season seemed to be coming unglued at the seams in recent races, he rebounded with a third place finish last week at Pocono.

His closest competitor in the title-fight, Graham Rahal, had closed the gap to nine points after Mid-Ohio. Rahal experienced trouble at Pocono in the form of Dale Coyne Racing’s Tristian Vautier. Rahal and Vautier collided before half-distance, and Montoya enters the finale with a comfortable 34 point lead over Rahal. Vautier was docked three points for avoidable contact, but that does little to help Rahal’s case.

Montoya has downplayed his advantage, publicly stating that he wishes the season-ender was not at Sonoma. However, the record will show that Montoya earned his first NASCAR win back in 2007 at this very same race course.

At the same time, the track has fared well for Penske IndyCar drivers over the years with Penske drivers taking five wins in the last seven Sonoma races.

Make no mistake about it, Juan Pablo Montoya is, without a doubt, the favorite to win this Championship.

The aforementioned Graham Rahal has an uphill battle on his hands, but, truth be told, this has been the story of his entire 2015 season.

The Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Team began 2015 with barely enough funding to keep one car on the track. Given their lackluster performance in recent seasons, expectations were pretty low for the team.

On the track we saw a very different Graham Rahal that we have been accustomed to. While some that had the Honda aero-kit felt crippled by its shortcomings, the Rahal team was consistently the fastest Honda car in practice week in and week out.

Burger chain Steak n’ Shake signed with the team as a part-time sponsor, and expanded their involvement as Rahal began to deliver some solid results.

Rahal drove to six podium finishes and two wins in 2015, and became a little bolder, and a little brasher along the way. Even if the team falls short of the title, the turnaround of the Hilliard, OH based team is the feel-good story of the year in IndyCar.

With the double-point structure at Sonoma, the title is in easy grasp of Rahal, should Montoya run into problems early on. If both cars finish, its significantly harder for Rahal.

There are a number of number-crunching scenarios out there if you care to get your calculator, but to put it the simplest terms possible it looks like this: If Rahal wins, he needs JPM outside of the top-five. If Rahal hits the podium, he needs JPM outside of the top-twelve. Either way, Rahal needs Montoya to be off of his game at Sonoma.

Rahal’s best bet is to give it his all and win the damn thing, a feat he has certainly shown that he is capable of this season.

Also mathematically alive for the crown are Scott Dixon, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden.  Each of them need a significant amount of bad luck to befall their competitors, but I would never count Scott Dixon out until the checkered flag falls.

Dixon faces an uphill battle for sure, but the three-time series champion is the defending winner at Sonoma. It wouldn’t surprise me one single bit to see the Target Chip Ganassi driver pull off a win in California’s wine country.

And, if Montoya and Rahal run into trouble….

The Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma will be broadcast on NBC-SN beginning at 4:00 PM EST. You can also follow all of the action on Sirius 212 xm 209, or with the IndyCar 15 app provided by Verizon. You won’t want to miss it.

Drafting the Circuits

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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