2015 IndyCar Championship Preview

“Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” – Henry James

The Verizon IndyCar Series heads to the west coast with heavy hearts this weekend, after losing an incredibly genuine person in Justin Wilson. He left behind a legacy that can not be duplicated, and a lasting impact that will forever change lives. He also left behind a wife, and two daughters. If you would like to donate to the fund that has been set up for Wilson’s children, you can send those to: Wilson Children’s Fund, c/o INDYCAR, 4551 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46222.

None of us feel completely comfortable about this weekend’s event, almost as though we’ll feel guilty if we enjoy it in any way. Still, fellow driver and friend Tony Kanaan said it best; the show must go on. The drivers will race in Justin’s honor this weekend at Sonoma, beginning with a tribute over the Golden Gate Bridge this afternoon.

As far as the business at hand this weekend, there will be plenty of things to monitor. For the tenth straight year, the Verizon IndyCar Series Championship will be decided in the final race of the season. There are six drivers that are still mathematically eligible to win the title this year, as double-points will be awarded for this weekend’s season finale at Sonoma. Juan Montoya remains in his familiar top spot in the standings, as he has led all year after his win in the season-opener at St Petersburg.

The scenario is simple for Montoya; he will win the title if he finishes first or second, no matter what anyone else does. Even if he finishes in third, Graham Rahal would have to win the race and collect all of the bonus points in order to take the championship from the Penske driver.

Click here to see the Full 2015 Championship Standings

Lets take a closer look at the contenders.

Juan Montoya

MontoyaMontoya’s lead in the championship is 34 points heading into the final race weekend. If he can hold on to capture the title, he would become just the fourth driver in history (the first since Sam Hornish in 2001) to lead the championship wire-to-wire during the season. Most drivers would be happy to win the Indianapolis 500 or the Championship in a season, but Montoya wants both.

If he is able to do that, he would become the sixth driver since 1996 to win the Indianapolis 500 and the Championship in the same season. The last to do it was Dario Franchitti in 2010.

So far this season, Montoya has two wins and five podiums. He only has one DNF (Iowa) and a 6.9 average finish, which is the best in the series. In his only start at Sonoma last year, Montoya started in 19th and finished fifth. Ironically enough, back in 1999, Montoya won the championship in California as he finished fourth at Fontana. This year, he finished fourth at Fontana, and he could win another championship this weekend – in California.


 

Graham Rahal (-34)

RahalComing into this past weekend’s race at Pocono, Rahal had all of the momentum in the world. He had finished in the top-five in four straight races, which included two wins. He qualified fifth, but things went south fast when he and Tristan Vautier got together in Turn 3. The 20th place finished coupled with Montoya’s podium dropped him 34 points behind the lead. So far this season he has six podium finishes, which is more than anyone in the series.

Graham will need to have a great finish in order to capture the championship this weekend, but this has been some sort of a storybook season for Graham and the single-car team of RLL. In seven starts at Sonoma, Rahal has only finished in the top-five once (5th in 2012). He’ll need a much better result than last year (20th) and his average finish at Sonoma (11.7) if he wants to claim the title this year.


 

Scott Dixon (-47)

DixonThis hasn’t been a typical year for The Iceman, but it is still Scott Dixon. He has his two wins this season, but he has only one other podium finish. His average finish (8.1) is good not great, and his last few races have seemed as though he was lacking something.

Dixon is 47 points out of the lead heading to Sonoma, where he has had quite a bit of success. Dixon has ten starts at Sonoma, completing 799 of the 800 laps. He has two wins at the track, including last year when he won the race despite leading only three laps. His average finish at Sonoma is 7.3 so expect him to qualify well and to be in the hunt late in the game.

Dixon will probably need a win and some help, but he also needs to qualify well, as nine of the ten IndyCar races at Sonoma have been won by a driver starting in the top three.


 

Will Power (-61)

PowerThe defending series champion isn’t going down without a fight. It’s been a sub par season by his standards, having only one win to his name in 2015. He currently sits 61 points behind teammate Montoya entering this weekend, but with the double-points system, he knows he still has a shot. Power does have five Poles this year, which is more than anyone in the series. He just hasn’t been able to turn in those dominating performances like he has in the past.

Power has as many DNFs as he does podium finishes (three) this year, and his average finishing position is tenth. He had a solid fourth-place finish last weekend at Pocono, which ended his horrible four-race stretch. The really good news for Power is that he knows Sonoma very well. In six starts, he has sat on the Pole four times, and has three race wins. It’s a tall order for sure, but Power is up to the challenge.


 

Helio Castroneves (-77)

HelioCastroneves knows he has been slipping, and he knows last weekend’s DNF at Pocono may have put his championship hopes on ice. He has been in a slump, with only one top-ten finish in his last five races. Despite not having a win yet this season, he does have four Poles and five podium finishes. Even if he can’t win the title, he will be chomping at the bit to get that win.

In the last 17 years, there has only been one season where Castroneves failed to win a race. This will be his last chance, but it’s at a place he knows fairly well. In ten starts at Sonoma, he has one win, one Pole, and three podium finishes. Last year he finished 18th, and not only will he need a win this weekend, but he will need a lot of help to have a shot at the title, as he is 77 points behind Montoya.


 

Josef Newgarden (-87)

JNBy all accounts, it’s been a very good season for Josef Newgarden. There were a few people who thought he could get his first career win this year, but he has been even better. He has two wins this year, and has come up just short in a couple of other races. He has two runner-up finishes in the last three races, and has finished in the top-five in three of the last four. He has led more laps (345) than any other driver in the series this season.

Newgarden will obviously need a miracle in order to jump five spots in the standings, but 87 points behind the leader is still mathematically feasible. Josef has three starts at Sonoma, with the first two resulting in DNFs. Fortunately last year was much better, as he qualified on the front row, and finished in sixth place. It could be his last race with CFH Racing, as he’ll soon be a free agent, but he would love to go out with a bang.


While the championship is the most important thing to be decided this weekend, there are several other things that we’ll be watching as the 2015 season comes to a close.

Team Penske will be looking for another Verizon P1 Pole Award on Saturday. If one of their four drivers gets it, it will be the 13th time in the 16 races that a Penske car will start the race from pole position. Power (five) and Castroneves (four) have nine between them, and Simon Pagenaud has one as well. Montoya hasn’t won a Pole yet this year, but he has started two races from the top spot after qualifying was rained out and the field was set according to points.

While qualifying has gone the Penske way, the races really haven’t. It’s been a well-balanced season as far as team wins are concerned. Both Penske and Andretti Autosport have won three races, while Chip Ganassi, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, CFHR, and KV Racing have all won two each. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has the other win, with James Hinchcliffe in New Orleans.

Fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan is also still trying to capture his first win. He was in the same boat last year, and won the final race of the season, which was his first win with Ganassi. If he is able to take the checkered flag on Sunday, not only will it be his first of the season, but it would be the 100th win for team owner Chip Ganassi.

The 2015 season ended last weekend for owner/driver Ed Carpenter. It was a dismal season for Ed, which ended with four DNFs in the six races he started. This was the first year since 2007 that Carpenter failed to finish a race in the top-five.

Looking at podium finishes, Chevrolet has 30 compared to 15 for Honda. Rahal has the most (six) among drivers, with Montoya and Castroneves just behind him with five. There are still three drivers (Jack Hawksworth, Gabby Chaves, Stefano Coletti) that have yet to finish on the podium this season.

Marco Andretti’s dreams of becoming just the second driver in history to complete every lap in a season came to an end at Pocono. Now it’s his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay who has completed the most laps (2,133) entering the final race. Newgarden has led the most laps this year, 73 more than Dixon and Power. Sunday’s race distance at Sonoma is 85 laps.

Below are the charts with all of the possible championship points scenarios.

P1

P2

P3

Practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma is from 5:30 – 9 PM ET on Friday. Saturday will feature a 45-minute practice session at 1:45 PM ET, with qualifications beginning at 6:05 PM ET. The events on Saturday, as well as the race on Sunday (4 PM ET) will air on NBC Sports Network.

Below is a highlight video from last year’s race, courtesy of IndyCar.

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