Photo: Justin R. Noe/ASP, Inc.

Tough Task Ahead for Title Chasers After Dixon’s Strong Run

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

SONOMA, California — Neither of the IndyCar Series title contenders scored bonus points as Ryan Hunter-Reay snatched the Verizon P1 Pole Award for the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway Saturday.

For the three drivers who are hunting down points leader Scott Dixon, their tasks became increasingly difficult after the New Zealander’s qualifying effort. He’ll start alongside Hunter-Reay in second, with Josef Newgarden following as the highest of the chasing trio after qualifying third.

The reigning series champion kept his strong pace from Friday afternoon’s session — where he was fastest — by going fifth in Saturday’s final practice. However, Newgarden was disappointed qualifying third after trailing Hunter-Reay by 0.166 seconds, denying him his fifth pole of the season. He felt that the potential of scoring the pole was there, but Alexander Rossi kicking up dust in Turn 9 hurt his lap time.

“Yeah, it was okay,’ he said. “I was most excited for the Fast Six. I thought that would be where we would shine the most. Third is not always what you want. I mean, if you’re in the Fast Six, you hope to get the pole. I think we had some potential on it. We were on a pretty good lap. Rossi just layered turn nine with dust. We lost some time.

“I think we were tight on Hunter-Reay’s time. A low six, high five. I think Dixon was on a five at one point, too. You don’t know what it would have been. It wasn’t enough.”

Newgarden will have the daunting challenge of overcoming a 78 point deficit, but it’ll require chaotic circumstances in the 85-lap contest to have a shot of retaining the No. 1 on his Team Penske Chevrolet.

With a large task ahead, Newgarden’s game plan is simple. He intends to win the race and give his primary sponsor, Verizon Wireless, a proper sendoff in their swan song as INDYCAR’s title sponsor.

“It would be incredible. I think I’m going to send Scott to the restaurant I went to Thursday night, get a little food poisoning before tomorrow,” Newgarden said. “It’s a tall order. I mean, it’s a big deal. To be here in the Verizon car for their final race is pretty special.

“They’ve been such a tremendous partner for the series. A lot of where we’re at is thanks to Verizon. They’ve helped bring the sport further. They’ve given us a lot of growth, I think a lot of potential for the future.

“Everything that happens beyond this point, you have to have a stepping-stone to get to the next place, and I think Verizon has given us that. They’ve been tremendous. It’s going to be a special race hopefully to send it off for those guys.”

Behind Newgarden are Rossi and Penske teammate Will Power, who went with blacks over reds and had different results that turned out to be a disadvantage.

Rossi ended up sixth on the starting grid, thanking his No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda crew for making improvements from Friday.

“I think we made good steps forward from yesterday and this morning again to be pretty competitive this afternoon,” Rossi said. “We tried something a little different in hopes it would pay off, did the Firestone blacks for the Fast Six. But at the end of the day it clearly, is probably not the right decision. At this point we’re trying to hit some home runs and get it done. It wasn’t meant to be.

“We knew the farthest we could fall down was sixth. That’s what happened. 85 laps tomorrow of chaos. It’s going to be fun. Hopefully we can move forward to the spot we need to.”

Indianapolis 500 champion Power wasn’t as fortunate. His No. 12 team also went with the Firestone blacks, but became the odd man out of making the Fast Six, only cracking seventh on the leader board.

Power, who also trails Dixon by 78 points, only ran a single lap in the second round instead of two, and reflected back by saying it was a misjudgment, and it cost him an opportunity of fighting for his 55th INDYCAR pole.

“I did two laps on my reds in the first run because a bunch of people backed up. I said, Okay, we need to do one lap in the next session,” Power said. “I went across the line, pit, thought we were okay. It was a bad call on my part. I mean, I was a part of that. Like, we just should have been thinking of getting in the Fast Six rather than the Fast Six. Should have done another lap. I think we would have got in.”

Unlike previous editions at Sonoma, Power feels that the difficult nature of passing at the 2.385-mile circuit will become obsolete due to tires degrading quicker than any other road course on the INDYCAR calendar.

“I think there will be passing because the tires degrade so much. I don’t know,” he said. “If everyone is going to degrade the same, some will go worse, but it’s definitely going to be some strategy plays because of that because of the lap time drop.”

All the talks are over. The main focus is the 85 laps that lies ahead. For those trailing Dixon, an arduous tasks ahead. It’ll come down to luck and pace for them to prevent the “Iceman” from clinching his fifth INDYCAR title.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a four-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.