Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

Santoroski: Five Takeaways from the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

The 2016 season for the Verizon Indycar Series is now in the books. Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud motored off into the distance at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, taking his fifth 2016 race win, and claiming his first series championship in the process. Let’s take a look at some of the headlines coming from California’s wine country.

1 ) No Lingering Questions 

This day and age, oftentimes a championship leaves behind lingering questions as to whether or not the points system, or championship system, is truly rewarding the right driver or team. In NASCAR, for example, the playoff system known as the Chase essentially rewards the driver that dodges elimination, and then performs best at a single event. It is a system that has worked well for American Football over the decades, but has left many racing enthusiasts shaking their heads.

In Indycar, the only gimmick used is the double-points in the finale which certainly benefited Scott Dixon last year, and left a few questions. In 2016, there is absolutely no doubt that the system rewarded the right driver and team. Simon Pagenaud won the most races, gained the most points, remained consistent all season long, and trounced the field at Sonoma. Even the most discriminating racing purist cannot find an argument against handing the Astor Cup to Simon Pagenaud. The Indycar points system works, plain and simple.

2 )  Is Sonoma the right place for the season-ender?   

The Raceway at Sonoma wound up as the season finale by default in 2015 after an agreement could not be reached to retain Fontana, which had hosted the season-ender from 2012-2014. Prior to that, the season had traditionally ended with an oval race at places like Texas, Chicago, Homestead and the cancelled 2011 race at Las Vegas.

In fact, 2015 was the first time in the history of the league that the season finale was scheduled on a road course, and the series certainly delivered with a drama-filled season-ender that saw Ganassi’s Scott Dixon snatch the title from Penske. This year, however, Pagenaud’s dominance, combined with teammate Will Power’s clutch problems, made the title a foregone conclusion before half-distance. Would an oval track have featured a different outcome? The world will never know.

For those who feel that the season has to end on an oval, there are two facts that I will point out. First, the old CART series, that so many of us like to reminisce about, ended their season at Laguna Seca for a seven-year stretch during their heyday before moving it to Fontana, and nobody seemed to mind. Secondly, in the years since 2005, when the Indy Racing League first added road racing to the series, the schedule has become heavy on street and road courses. With that in mind, it is actually fitting that the title be decided with a racing discipline that comprises two-thirds of the schedule.

But, face it…the excitement produced on a high speed oval track is a fantastic way to end the season with a bang. This is an argument with strong points on both sides, but either way, Sonoma is already lined up to end the season once again in 2017.

3 ) Growth bodes well for teams

With the departure of Target as a primary sponsor of the Ganassi Team, its easy to predict doom and gloom for the series. However, if you peel the onion back a bit, you can see that the exact opposite is the case.

The Verizon Indycar Series has continued a trend of small but steady growth over the past few seasons, and the teams are beginning to see more sponsor interest. Certainly, we are still a far cry from the 80’s and 90’s when the logos of major alcohol, tobacco, retail stores and oil companies adorned the sides of the cars, but there are some some good things happening out there.

One of the announcements made at Sonoma came from the Andretti Autosports Team where it was revealed that shipping company, DHL, will remain as a primary sponsor for at least the next four seasons. This comes less than a month after the team also announced electronics retailer, hhgregg as a primary co-sponsor for 2017. Over at Team Penske, the home improvement chain, Menard’s, has announced that they will expand their support of Simon Pagenaud’s car to ten races in 2017.

In recent years, the Series inked a high profile title sponsor in Verizon Communications as the Rahal Team brought Steak n’ Shake on board. Arrow electronics joined the Schmidt-Peterson Team, as NAPA Auto Parts and Castrol Edge threw their names onto Alexander Rossi’s car.

With other teams sponsors like ABC Supply, Snapple, Fuzzy’s Vodka, NTT Data, Hitachi and Lucas Oils all expected to return, the picture gets a bit brighter. All this while NASCAR has yet to sign a title sponsor to replace Sprint.

And, who might we see on Scott Dixon’s sidepod in 2017?

Chip Ganassi has been confident, and tight-lipped at the same time. Word on the street is that Chip has something up his sleeve, and it is a big name. Stay tuned..

4 ) Ending on a low note

While Simon Pagenaud closed out his 2016 in style, Graham Rahal and Juan Pablo Montoya joined him on the podium also finishing on a high note. There were, however, a few notables who were sent packing after Sonoma with an eye towards 2017.

Will Power experienced clutch problems early on that caused him to lose a number of laps and see his title hopes vanish. His path was a long shot, but the fact that he wasn’t able to really fight for it has to be a major letdown. Similarly, his Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves finished the day in a mediocre seventh position after hoping to challenge for the win. 2016 marks Helio’s second consecutive winless season, despite maintaining a consistency that gave him third in the season standings.

Scott Dixon, in his last race with Target livery, had an unscheduled pit stop to change an earpiece that left him in 17th at the and of the day. The title was out of reach, but climbing up to second in the standings was a possibility. Instead, his season ends with the Kiwi sixth overall.

Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan spun on the opening lap en-route to a 13th place finish and a second consecutive winless season.  Young Conor Daly, who captured the first podium of his career earlier this season at Detroit, was coming off af a 4th place at Watkins Glen. Early mechanical issues put an end to his day at Sonoma leaving him 21st on the day.

5 ) The Silly Season is officially upon us     

With the racing season now in the books, the silly season is officially in full gear, although nothing solid will be announced for a few more weeks. Ryan Hunter-Reay has signed with Andretti Autosport through 2020, which quells a lot of rumors about the 2017-2018 silly season, but the current one hinges on Juan Pablo Montoya, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi.

Team Penske has reportedly offered JPM an Indy-only deal going forward, but the fact remains that he wants to remain as a full-time driver in the series for the time being. Montoya returning to Penske full-time is certainly not off of the table, but the idea that his Penske seat will be open is the prevailing thought in the paddock.

While young Josef Newgarden has been hotly rumored for that seat, Alexander Rossi was spied leaving the Penske trailer at Watkins Glen. The Rossi to Penske story was the hottest news in the Sonoma paddock, but, again, nothing solid to report.

The drivers who are certain to remain in the same seat for 2017 include the aforementioned Ryan Hunter-Reay, his teammate Marco Andretti (though he will move to the Herta side of the operation), Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball, Ed Carpenter, James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal. Sebastien Bourdais moving from KVSH to Dale Coyne Racing also appears to be a likely scenario.

Where anybody else lands depends on how the dominoes fall, regarding not only drivers, but engine manufacturers as well. It’s going to be an interesting one, that’s for sure.

 

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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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