It wasn’t the best race of the season, but Sunday’s GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma still had a major impact on the IZOD IndyCar Series championship.
Will Power appeared to have the race in the bag for much of the afternoon until a bit of pit drama helped cause him to lose out to Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe, who won his first race since 2010. But considering that Power increased his title lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay to 36 points, any disappointment on his part was surely blunted at least somewhat. And with two races remaining on the schedule, a frustrated Hunter-Reay will have to rally from a big hole in order to become the first American champ in IndyCar since 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.).
Let’s take a look at how each of IndyCar’s “final four” did in the winding hills of California wine country.
Power, the pole sitter, was set for maximum points coming out of Sonoma when he went in for his final pit stop of the afternoon on Lap 64. However, as he was receiving service, the caution flag came out for a nasty incident involving Sebastien Bourdais and Josef Newgarden (who suffered a broken finger and is now questionable for the next race at Baltimore).
When Power emerged from pit road, he found himself caught in slower traffic under the caution period. Meanwhile, Briscoe made his stop on Lap 65 and was able to beat Power to the blend line, taking the lead in the process. Briscoe had to withstand two restarts within the final 11 laps, but he was able to hang on to the point and claim a victory that might have saved his drive at Penske.
Any other time, Power would be distraught over how a sure victory slipped away from him. But there’s a bigger prize to chase after right now.
“I’d love to win, but I still got points and made the most of the situation as it was,” said Power, who had won the previous two events at Sonoma.
Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay’s gap to Power grew by a considerable margin — and even worse, it wasn’t his fault.
RHR started seventh and had worked his way up to third on Lap 75, when Alex Tagliani locked up on the inside of Dario Franchitti and went skidding into Hunter-Reay’s machine. The American then stalled it and needed to be re-fired, costing him tons of track position.
In the end, he finished in 18th place and promptly had a heated post-race conversation with Tagliani, who would later apologize on his Twitter page. On Sunday, however, RHR would have none of any explanations.
“We had a great car at the end, and… then it was the usual Tag (Tagliani),” Hunter-Reay spat. “He just got in there, locked up the brakes and got into the back of me.
“I can’t tell you how frustrated I am after the engine problems last (race, at Mid-Ohio), and then this. We had a podium (finish). I can’t get over it right now. It’s unreal.”
Castroneves had to work his butt off in the No. 3 Team Penske machine after drawing a drive-thru penalty for avoidable contact when he spun out Scott Dixon on the opening lap. Following the penalty, Castroneves was in 21st place.
But the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion persevered and eventually came home with a sixth-place finish that kept his hopes for a first career series title alive. He now sits 41 points back of Power with two races left in 2012.
Following the race, Castroneves expressed remorse for his spin of Dixon but was also happy to rack up as many points as he did.
“I’m extremely happy being able to collect more points, but not so happy with the early-race incident,” he said. “Certainly, I did not try to pass Scott. I did not want to ruin my race and especially anyone else’s race. But at the end of the day you need to just keep pushing.
“I felt that we had a better car than sixth, but again, today’s sixth was like a victory.”
Dixon attempted to fight back after getting spun out on Lap One, rising into the lower reaches of the Top Ten by the time he made his final stop of the afternoon. Unfortunately, the New Zealand native ran over a piece of equipment while coming out of his pit stall on that stop, which earned him a drive-through penalty that played a big part in his final finish of 13th place.
As a result, Dixon lost a big chunk of points and is now 54 points behind Power going into Baltimore.