By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
SONOMA, California — The answer is simple, it’ll take chaotic circumstances, and having a picture perfect weekend for championship contenders Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and Will Power to prevent Scott Dixon from capturing his unprecedented fifth Verizon IndyCar Series championship at Sonoma Raceway.
Among the three title chasers, Rossi is the closest to Dixon, trailing the points leader by 29 points and in many people’s eyes, the best among the three in terms of catching Dixon. Heading into Saturday, he has the most work to do because he was the slowest among the four, clocking in at 1:18.273 during morning’s session, only good for 11th overall in the combined time sheets.
Not only that, he spun off in Turn 8 to bring out the first red flag of the morning session. Fortunately, he was able to bring his car back into the pits unharmed, and ended the session in eighth. Rossi improved on the practice board, ending up sixth quickest, but 0.115 seconds slower from his personal best.
While not cracking the top-10 overall, Rossi felt the afternoon session was a better representation of his day, not taking account of the combined times.
“The whole combined thing is weird because they overtake in the morning, so I don’t really pay attention to that. I think this afternoon is the representation,” said Rossi.
Following up his statement was the benefit of testing Thursday. Although good, the track constantly changes which has caused his Andretti Autosport team to head back to the drawing board.
“I think we made a step forward this afternoon from this morning, and we had the test yesterday, which I thought was really good for us, but this place changes so quickly,” Rossi said. “So often that what you have one day doesn’t necessarily transfer completely to the next day.”
“We definitely have some work to do overnight and need to put our heads together. It’s not the first time we’ve had a bad Friday, so I have a lot of confidence in the 27 NAPA team that come tomorrow afternoon we’ll be all right.”
Heading into the biggest race of his career, Rossi was concerned about tire conservation being critical on the outcome of Sunday’s finale due to its very “bad and terrible” tire wear.
“It’s something that we’re all thinking about, we’re all concerned about. Fortunately it’s the same for everyone, right? So it’s just about kind of finding a way to hopefully make the tires last,” said Rossi.
“It’s difficult without a warm-up for sure so you’re kind of going through practice sessions trying to do both things, work on the qualifying car and the race car at the same time. But no, it’s definitely going to be a challenge on Sunday for sure.”
While the main focus is on Rossi, the Team Penske duo of defending champion Newgarden and 2014 title holder Power are too in the mix, but they have a much bigger hurdle as they’re both 87 behind the “Ice Man.”
Among the two, Newgarden was quickest at 1:17.815, which was good enough to top the afternoon practice session, and fastest among the four championship contenders. Only Ryan Hunter-Reay’s morning time of 1:17.574 was faster than the reigning champion.
It’s worth noting that Newgarden only completed a combined total 22 laps as he didn’t run the morning session, which raised concerns as to why he didn’t including food poisoning being the main reason. Although he confirmed it, Newgarden said it was pure coincidence as it was a fueling problem that did him in and his Penske crew didn’t have enough time to fix and run a lap.
“We didn’t even realize it because we were going to run pretty late, so we didn’t have a lot of time to work on it I think was the big deal. I think when we were going to run there was 20 minutes to go, and then we realized we had a problem,” said Newgarden.
“Not a huge setback in my opinion just because we were able to test and that makes a world of a difference. You sort of already know what you have and what you want to do. So I felt like getting back on it this afternoon wasn’t really a big deal.”
Newgarden’s main takeaway from Friday was the mass variable of wind direction, requiring everyone to grasp it quickly, failing to do so will cause a problem as it has constant changes.
“Yeah, I think compared to other tracks, it’s a big variable here with just the wind direction. It really changes the balance of the car here dramatically compared to other racetracks. You’re always watching it,” said Newgarden.
“It normally flips on you halfway through the race, and then sometimes in qualifying it does that, too. So you need to pay attention because it can catch you out if you don’t catch it when it does change, it can cause a problem for you. So you’re always watching it. The team is trying to keep you up to date on it, too, just to make sure you get it right.”
Aside from serenading a Red Hot Chili Peppers tune at day’s end, Power, who has five poles at the 2.385-mile circuit, said it has been very difficult finding grip to set a perfect lap that’ll score him a season-high fifth pole, and third out of the last four rounds Saturday, and it’s not just the lack of downforce, but the entire car being an issue.
“It’s going to be very difficult. The track is very low grip. Obviously we have less downforce this year, and it’s just so hard to put a mistake-free lap together,” said Power.
“I’m not sure anybody did. Maybe Josef did. So yeah, it’ll be a very interesting qualifying session.”
Power’s fastest time occurred in the morning session, setting a time of 1:17.881 which was fourth overall and a spot behind Dixon, who eaked him out by 0.055 seconds.
With all the talk being about the championship, perhaps the biggest standout from Friday wasn’t necessarily seeing the championship contenders coming into terms of conquering Sonoma, but the stunning result from Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward. The 19-year-old Mexican-American pilot put the second Harding Racing entry up to sixth overall in the combined practice time sheet with a 1:18.007, impressing the championship contenders like Power, describing that’s how competitive the sport is today.
“As you can see it’s very tight at the front, then the middle pack is very tight. It’s just tight all the way through, and that’s just IndyCar now,” said Power.
“You can’t pick a bad driver out of that lot. You look at the rookie O’Ward, that’s super impressive first time out. That guy has definitely got some talent.”
Not only did it impressed the Indianapolis 500 champion, O’Ward’s stout time caught the attention of the points leader himself, citing how good it is seeing the field being spread out as the difference between Hunter-Reay to 25th Max Chilton is 1.599 seconds.
“We can see a pretty good spread already in the speeds today, which is pretty good. It’s pretty good to see an Indy Lights champion up there, too,” said Dixon.
Final practice will take place at 2 p.m. EST and they’ll seek to lock themselves into the Firestone Fast Six and win pole during qualifying at 6 p.m. EST.