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Fuel and Tires

All about auto racing with Gazette staffer Dave von Falkenstein.

Fuel & Tires: Finale time for IndyCar; NASCAR playoffs set

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Dave von Falkenstein
Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Verizon IndyCar Series is at California's Sonoma Raceway for its season finale Sunday. Following 16 races this season, there are seven drivers mathematically eligible to win the title, but I see only four with a realistic shot. The finale race will award double points, which will certainly make things a lot more interesting.

Josef Newgarden has won a season-high four races and sits atop the points heading into the finale while four-time champion Scott Dixon is three points behind. Then it's Newgarden's Team Penske teammates, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, who are 22 and 34 points behind, respectively.

In Newgarden's first year driving for Penske, he has a chance to be the first driver since Gil de Ferran in 2000 to grab a title in his first year with the team. Coincidentally, 2000 was also Castroneves' first year with the team, but the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is still looking for his first series title.

It's been all but confirmed that Castroneves, who won at Sonoma in 2008, will be off to race sports cars for Penske's new team next year. Perhaps if he can pull off a title win, Penske will allow him to stay in IndyCar. In either case, it's likely that the most well-known driver in the series will be in the field for next year's Indy 500 to try for his elusive fourth win in that race.

Defending series champion Pagenaud won this race last year, and as with Dixon and Castroneves, has only one race win this season. While it's not out of the realm of possibility for Pagenaud to put his head down and collect maximum points this weekend as he did in last year's finale, that may not be enough.

For Dixon, a fifth series title would cement his legacy as one of the greatest IndyCar drivers ever. Anybody who has followed the series for the last 15 years or so will tell you Dixon is one of the best, though also one of the most underrated drivers this century.

Dixon's 41 career wins (including three wins at Sonoma) puts him fourth on the all-time win list, one win behind Michael Andretti and eleven wins behind Mario Andretti. His fifth title would break his tie with Dario Franchitti, Sebastien Bourdais and Mario Andretti. Only A.J. Foyt, with seven titles, is ahead of Dixon on the all-time list.

I would love to see Newgarden take his first IndyCar championship in his rookie campaign for Penske, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Dixon is going to be like a shark that smells blood in the water. There's a reason they call him “The Iceman” and he thrives on this kind of challenge. If Dixon can take his 42nd win on his way to his fifth title, it would be a fantastic way to end what has been a fantastic season.

Coverage of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma starts at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC Sports Network.

PLAYOFFS SET FOR NASCAR

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series kicks off its playoffs Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with 16 drivers set to battle for the championship. Kyle Larson took his fourth win of the season Saturday in Richmond while Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray, both winless this season, were the last two drivers to make the cut for the playoffs.

In addition to Kenseth and McMurray, drivers eligible to compete for the championship include Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne.

Keselowski and Harvick are the only multiple winners at Chicagoland while Truex, Hamlin, Kenseth, Newman, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and have also won at the 1.5-mile tri-oval since NASCAR starting racing there in 2001.

It was also announced this week that Danica Patrick will not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next season due to a new sponsorship arrangement for the team. The Roscoe, Ill. native has one pole and seven top-ten finishes in 180 Cup starts since 2012.

Will Patrick end up driving for another team next season? It's doubtful at this stage with minimal opportunities still available, but with the kind of media coverage and fan base she has, it would be a win for any team that picked her up. As for the rumors of Patrick returning to IndyCar? I definitely don't see that happening.

Coverage of the Tales of the Turtles 400 starts at 2 p.m. Sunday on NBC Sports Network.

FORMULA ONE HITS SINGAPORE

Formula One returns to action with a new points leader as Lewis Hamilton now sits three points ahead of Sebastian Vettel after winning in Italy two weeks ago. Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas came second ahead of Vettel, who recorded his tenth podium in 13 races this season.

Hamilton won from pole, which was his 69th pole career position and broke a tie with Michael Schumacher to give Hamilton more poles than any driver in history. Hamilton also took his 59th career win, though he has a long way to go to match Schumacher's all-time mark of 91 wins.

Vettel has four career wins at Singapore's Marina Bay Street Circuit while Hamilton has won there twice. The only other former winner in the field is Fernando Alonso, who won the inaugural race in 2008 and then again in 2010.

Speaking of Alonso, it looks like his under-performing McLaren team will drop engine supplier Honda at the end of the season and use Renault engines starting next year. If that is the case, Alonso will likely stay with his McLaren team with hopes that next season's performance takes a big step forward.

The two-time world champion hasn't won a race since 2013 when he drove for Ferrari and hasn't finished on the podium since 2014, also for Ferrari. Since joining McLaren (for a second time) in 2015, Alonso has recorded 16 retirements which is nearly as many has he had from 2005-2014.

After a highly enjoyable foray into IndyCar by racing in the Indy 500 this year, there were pretty strong rumors that Alonso would compete in IndyCar next season if McLaren couldn't get their act together. Unfortunately, it looks likely that Alonso will stay in Formula One, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him back at Indy next May.

Coverage of the Singapore Grand Prix starts at 7 a.m. Sunday on NBC Sports Network.


Dave von Falkenstein is a digital content coordinator for The Gazette and an auto racing fan. Follow him on Twitter at @achtungvon or email him at dvonfalkenstein@gazettextra.com.


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