Thursday, August 21, 2008
Updated: August 22, 12:58 PM ET
Dixon can put exclamation point on series title this weekend at Sonoma
By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com
SONOMA, Calif. -- The main point of interest in this weekend's PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County (Sunday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is whether Scott Dixon clinches his second IndyCar Series championship.
The 2003 IndyCar titleholder arrives at Infineon Raceway with a 78-point championship lead over Helio Castroneves. If Dixon departs California's Wine County with 82 points in hand, he could literally skip the last two races of the season (at Detroit on Aug. 31 and Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 7) and still collect the IndyCar championship trophy and the $1 million bonus that accompanies it.
Based on the way the 2008 season has played out, Dixon clinching the title at Sonoma is a strong likelihood. The Target/Ganassi Racing ace has won an IndyCar Series record-tying six races this year, while Castroneves has yet to reach Victory Circle.
The IndyCar Series is optimistically trying to promote the fact that four drivers remain in championship contention, but Dan Wheldon (138 points back) and Tony Kanaan (-147) would pretty much have to win out to have a chance.
The four title contenders' cars will be equipped this weekend with unique Firestone tires featuring white sidewalls to differentiate them from the rest of the field.
"It would be nice to gain a couple of points, but in all reality, I think we'll be racing almost until the last race," Dixon remarked.
Castroneves' task this weekend was made even tougher when Team Penske's primary transporter caught fire en route to California, destroying two race cars and key pit and car setup equipment. The incident, believed to be sparked by a wheel bearing on the trailer, occurred on Interstate 80 in Wyoming early Wednesday morning.
"We're certainly not going to have everything that we're used to," said Penske Performance president Tim Cindric. "All the uniforms for the team were in that truck, so we're bringing all the uniforms we do have. Pit equipment is all kind of secondhand or nonexistent. But we'll make the most of it."
Castroneves observed that the last time Penske faced unusually adverse circumstances, he won the next race. That was at Kansas Speedway in 2006 in the aftermath of flooding at Penske's former IndyCar race shop in Reading, Pa.
"I hope we can turn it around pretty quickly," said Castroneves. "We seem to always perform in these circumstances, but I know my guys are going to be extremely tired."
Castroneves came oh-so-close to winning the most recent IndyCar Series race at Kentucky Speedway, only to run out of fuel within sight of the finish line. That allowed Dixon to nip past in a thrilling finish.
"This race is crucial, and a lot of things can be decided," Castroneves said of Sunday's 80-lap contest around the undulating 2.3-mile Infineon road course. "I need Scott to fall back a bit. There's still a good chance to catch him, but as much as winning, I need something to happen to him."
Castroneves' teammate Ryan Briscoe paced a recent two-day test at Infineon, and the cars he used for the test were unaffected by Team Penske's highway disaster. Briscoe has won two races this season -- most recently on the Mid-Ohio road course -- to lift himself into the top five of the championship standings after a shaky start.
Briscoe is likely too far back to improve his championship position any more. But there is a good battle for third place in the standings between Dixon's teammate Wheldon and Kanaan, who drives for Andretti Green Racing. The two former series champions are separated by nine points.
Kanaan won the inaugural IndyCar race at Infineon in 2005 and has never finished lower than fourth at the track.
"I always enjoy racing at Infineon, and it would be a big boost to the team if we could win a couple more races before the season ends," he said.
A surprising second-fastest in Infineon testing was Bruno Junqueira of Dale Coyne Racing. That demonstrated that ex-Champ Car teams including Coyne, KV Racing and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing are much more competitive on IndyCar road courses than on ovals.
"It would be nice to score a victory here on a road circuit, and I think it's possible," said NHLR's Justin Wilson, who scored a podium finish in the Rexall Grand Prix of Edmonton. "I don't know the track, but I can learn it pretty quickly. I have scored a victory each of the last three years of Champ Car, so it would be great to continue that and score one this season even with the added difficulty of being in a new championship."
Twenty-seven cars are entered for this weekend's event; the key addition is the return of Luczo Dragon Racing and driver Tomas Scheckter.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
I need Scott [Dixon] to fall back a bit. There's still a good chance to catch him, but as much as winning, I need something to happen to him.
-- Helio Castroneves