Scott Dixon was the big winner, Helio Castroneves the big loser and Will Power emerged from Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma a little dazed and penalized but still leading the Verizon IndyCar championship.
It was a bit of a wild west show Sunday at Sonoma Raceway as what has tended to be a bit of a yawner of a race on this old, narrow road course turned out to be one of the most intriguing and entertaining shows ever staged here.
Dixon, the master of driving fast and conserving fuel, passed Mike Conway with three laps left in his Target Dallara-Chevrolet to claim his second victory in three races in a race that left four drivers still with a chance at the title going into Saturday night’s finale at Fontana.
Power leads Castroneves by 51 points with 103 points still available in the MAVTV 500 and Simon Pagenaud (-81) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (-92) are still mathematically alive.
The penultimate race of the 2014 season opened with a melee in Turn 2 that pretty much ruined Castroneves’ day as he got turned in a pileup with Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe and Takuma Sato. Castroneves, who trailed Power by 40 points at the green flag, had to pit twice for repairs, dropped to last and finished 18th.
“Very disappointing day, to get hit on the first lap and basically ruin our race,” he lamented afterward. “But we still have a chance, it’s a 500-mile race and anything can happen.”
And it could have been even worse for the three-time Indy 500 winner, who is still searching for his initial championship. Polesitter Power dominated early in the Verizon Dallara-Chevrolet, easily pacing 24 of the opening 36 laps and was cruising toward his fourth win of 2014 before his day disintegrated into a familiar pattern.
Following a full-course caution on lap 36 and a pit stop, in which the No. 9 Ganassi team jumped Dixon ahead, Power found himself back in seventh behind those on an alternate strategy. On the restart, while dueling with Josef Newgarden, the Aussie spun exiting Turn 7 and dropped to 20th place.
The three-time bridesmaid in the championship battled back to finish ninth, but was dropped to 10th after passing Justin Wilson at the start-finish line during a waving yellow for the stalled car of Conway.
“I just got on the throttle and it came around – I thought for a second maybe I got turned because it happened so fast,” said Power, who has lost the title in the final race in 2010-’11-’12. “We had the fastest car and, obviously, I would have liked to have a better finish but we’ll go to Fontana and try to win this thing.”
Power’s misstep opened the door for a number of challengers and strategies. Conway, who made a bold outside move to snatch first place away from Tony Kanaan on lap 40, pulled away and led 19 laps before Graham Rahal charged to the front on lap 64.
Young Rahal, who pitted on lap 57, used a nifty inside pass to take the lead from Conway and was holding him, Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay at bay while trying to nurse the National Guard Dallara-Honda to the end without running out of fuel.
Rahal had to pit on lap 82, leaving Conway in front but, he too, was in fuel conservation mode and Dixon roared around him on lap 83, taking the inside line to Turn 1 and driving around the outside of Turn 2. Conway ran dry exiting the final turn and dropped from third to 14th as RHR claimed second and Pagenaud finished third.
“It’s one of our strengths and it paid off today,” said Dixon, referring to saving fuel and still pushing. “There were a lot of different strategies out there and I wasn’t sure if Graham and Mike were going to be able to make it or not.
“We had a pretty %&^*$ season until the last few races but our goal was to finish strong.”
The Kiwi’s 35th win tied him with Bobby Unser for fifth on the all-time IndyCar winners’ list.
“It’s very cool to be named in the company of Bobby Unser,” he said. “It’s hard to believe and it’s pretty humbling.”
Results - 85 laps: Pos Driver Team/Engine Time/Gap 1. Scott Dixon Ganassi/Chevy 2h09m21.8064s 2. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti/Honda +1.1359s 3. Simon Pagenaud Schmidt/Honda +6.3078s 4. Takuma Sato Foyt/Honda +11.8110s 5. Juan Pablo Montoya Penske/Chevy +12.7305s 6. Josef Newgarden Fisher/Honda +13.5367s 7. Mikhail Aleshin Schmidt/Honda +15.8048s 8. Marco Andretti Andretti/Honda +20.1054s 9. Justin Wilson Coyne/Honda +21.6233s 10. Will Power Penske/Chevy +22.1936s 11. Sebastien Bourdais KV/Chevy +22.4321s 12. James Hinchcliffe Andretti/Honda +23.1572s 13. Tony Kanaan Ganassi/Chevy +23.2277s 14. Mike Conway Carpenter/Chevy +26.9930s 15. Jack Hawksworth Herta/Honda +37.0303s 16. Sebastian Saavedra KV/Chevy +37.7440s 17. Ryan Briscoe Ganassi/Chevy +37.9876s 18. Helio Castroneves Penske/Chevy +39.6511s 19. Carlos Munoz Andretti/Honda +42.4797s 20. Graham Rahal Rahal/Honda +43.5335s 21. Charlie Kimball Ganassi/Chevy -1 lap Retirements: Carlos Huertas Coyne/Honda 28 laps