Will Power still in the driver's seat
The basic storyline from the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma was obvious: Ryan Briscoe took advantage of the first full-course caution in 224 laps of Izod IndyCar Series competition to edge teammate Will Power in a Penske Racing 1-2. Power benefited from bad days for his closest title competitors to extend his championship lead to 36 points over Ryan Hunter-Reay, 41 points over Helio Castroneves and 54 points over Scott Dixon.
But there was much more to this race than can be explained in a 900-word narrative. So here are 10 talking points from California wine country that should paint a clearer picture of the implications resulting from Sunday's action at Sonoma:
1. Power got robbed -- Power built an eight-second lead over Briscoe and seemed to catch a break when the first full-course caution in the past three IndyCar Series races flew while the Australian was in the pits making his final stop of the day.
But a slight delay changing the right rear wheel, coupled with Power catching some slower cars on his out lap meant that Briscoe emerged at the front of the field with 20 laps to go. It was a lead that Briscoe would not relinquish, because only nine of the final 20 laps were run under green and Power's push-to-pass overtake function malfunctioned.
"It went well all the way to the last stop," Power said in the postrace news conference. "I had the quickest car and was quite easily keeping a handy lead. We had a slow stop, probably lost four seconds there, then came across a bunch of guys on the track (Charlie Kimball, Sebastien Saavedra and Justin Wilson) who just doddled all the way back. That's when I was using the word 'wanker,' because those guys cost me the race."
Power must be thinking he can't catch a break: He lost the lead this year at Toronto because the pits were closed when the caution flew. At Sonoma, race director Beaux Barfield kept the pits open because the accident involving Sebastien Bourdais and Josef Newgarden that caused the yellow was near the end of the lap and well off the racing surface.
Briscoe pitted a lap later than Power and never got caught behind drivers who slowed prematurely to heed the yellow.
"I do understand that you kind of want to go slow where the accident was, and it was a big accident for sure," Power said. "But these guys, it was a whole lap. I don't know whether they're told to do it because maybe they're a rival team [Kimball drives for Ganassi Racing, which also fields championship competitor Dixon].
"Whatever, it cost me dearly," he added. "You can't pass under yellow; I would have gotten a penalty if I went motoring by these guys. But that's racing. I think in the drivers' meetings, maybe race control needs to be more adamant about when it goes yellow or if there's an accident on the track, you have to be cautious in that zone. But this was a whole lap."
2. Briscoe's breakthrough -- Briscoe hadn't won since he triumphed at Texas Motor Speedway in June 2010, and to say he needed a win is an understatement. While Power and Castroneves rank first and third in the championship standings, Briscoe is eighth, and the last of the three Penske drivers to win a race this year.
Although Briscoe is not in championship contention, team owner Roger Penske insisted during the race that he would not impose team orders for Power to win and "The Captain" remained true to his word, allowing his drivers to settle the issue on the track. Power definitely had the fastest car of the weekend, but Briscoe obviously had an advantage pulling out of corners late in the race and it later came to light that Power's pit-lane speed limiter was engaging every time he tried to use the overtake function.
"It's great to get the win," Briscoe told reporters after his seventh career Indy car race victory. "You get into a slump and you think, 'Man, am I ever going to win again?' So this is definitely lifting, a confidence builder. We've been fast all year long. I don't know how many front-row starts we had, so many, but we've just had struggles executing in the race for whatever reason, whether it's been bad luck or whatever.
"Today just fell into our hands. We raced hard and ran strong. Hopefully it's the start of maybe a couple more wins in the next two races."
3. Every point counts -- With Power having lost the IndyCar championship to Dario Franchitti the last two years in close, heartbreaking fashion, many observers expected Penske or team manager Tim Cindric to impose team orders and have Briscoe cede the lead to Power.
But Power's problem with the overtake function handicapped him in the final laps and almost cost him second place to Franchitti, who was right on his rear wing for the final stages of the race.
"We don't have team orders here," Penske told the IndyCar Radio Network. "I think if Will could have gotten up alongside [Briscoe] it wouldn't have been an issue. But with the other cars and the issues they had, I think we did the right thing. You can't take a win away from a guy."
Even Power seemed to be pleased for Briscoe. "I couldn't be happier for Ryan," he said. "He really needed that win. He's been strong all weekend. But, yeah, I can't help but be a little bit disappointed -- but happy because I've still got a good points buffer."
Even so, Power would have added an additional 10 points to his 36-point cushion had he been the first Penske driver to cross the line. And there is a historical precedent where the lack of imposition of team orders cost a driver a championship.
Late in the 1999 season, Franchitti was running second to Team Green teammate Paul Tracy in the Grand Prix of Houston. Team Boss Barry Green did not ask Tracy to give up the win, even though Tracy wasn't in championship contention. Franchitti ended up losing the CART championship to Juan Pablo Montoya, and even a single additional point would have netted Franchitti the title. Many observers pointed to that day at Houston as an obvious place where Franchitti could have easy gotten a few extra points with some help from his team.
"I don't have any regrets for what we did at Houston," Green told me in 2002. "We lost the championship somewhere else that season, either through a pit stop problem or Dario making a mistake. It was still a great effort."
Power and Penske must be hoping that this year's IndyCar Series championship is not decided by 10 points or fewer.
4. Road course champion -- For the third year in a row, Power won the Mario Andretti Trophy as the IndyCar Series top road racer. He clinched the road racing title with one road course event remaining, next weekend's Grand Prix of Baltimore.
Still, Power and Penske have their eyes on a much bigger prize.
"I think any championship is important, but we want to focus on the overall championship," Penske told IRN. "It's important to us, it's important to the team, and we've been close so many years and haven't been able to close the deal. Ganassi has done a better job doing that, so today was key for us."
5. Chevy is tops -- Briscoe's victory helped Chevrolet clinch the IndyCar Series Engine Manufacturer's championship. Chevrolet returned to Indy car competition this year for the first time since 2005; in the ensuing six years, Honda supplied engines to the full IndyCar Series field.
Chevrolet teams have pretty much dominated the 2012 season, scoring victories in 10 of 13 races. Chevrolet drivers Power, Hunter-Reay and Castroneves rank 1-2-3 in the points standings.
"To me, the Chevy relationship goes back a long time when we had the first Chevy Indy engine [in 1985], so to me this is just a repeat," Penske said. "I think to have Chevy come into the series was a big plus. We have three engine manufacturers now, and there's a lot of good competition between the brands. I think the league has done a very good job in monitoring each engine and being sure it's a level playing field. To see them win the manufacturer's championship in their first year is very rewarding."
The Chevrolet Indy engine is designed and produced by Ilmor Engineering.
It's great to get the win. You get into a slump and you think, 'Man, am I ever going to win again?' So this is definitely lifting, a confidence builder.” -- Ryan Briscoe
6. Helio's costly mistake -- Castroneves finished sixth at Sonoma, but he probably should have completed Team Penske's second consecutive 1-2-3 finish at a track where the team has dominated. However, Castroneves misjudged a passing move on Dixon on the opening lap, tapping Dixon into a spin and earning himself a drive through-penalty that he did a good job of recovering from.
Dixon was less fortunate. At times, he was the fastest man on the track, using an alternate pit-stop strategy to work his way back up to third place. But an overtaking move of his own gone awry led to an extra stop to change his Ganassi Racing car's nose, and Dixon's troubles were further compounded when he ran over an air hose on another pit stop, all of which left him with a 13th-place finish.
Castroneves dropped an additional 19 points to Power over the course of the Sonoma weekend, while the 28-point hit Dixon incurred has realistically removed him from championship contention. He's now 54 points out of the lead.
7. The other Ryan got Tagged -- The most frustrated man at Sonoma was undoubtedly Hunter-Reay, who came into the weekend just three points behind Power but left facing a 36-point deficit.
Hunter-Reay qualified seventh at a track where Andretti Autosport has traditionally struggled and looked set to emerge with a third-place finish until Alex Tagliani spun him out when he failed to pull off a ridiculously optimistic overtaking move with just a handful of laps remaining.
Hunter-Reay was livid after finishing 18th. "I can't even tell you how hard I drove to hold off cars that were quicker at times, just to put us in the position to challenge for a win," he said. "Then it was the usual Tag. 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, and then this. We had a podium. ... I can't get over it right now. It's unreal."
Tagliani was apologetic, but the damage was done. "The only thing I can say is that there's probably not going to be enough apologies to make Ryan feel better," he told an NBCN television reporter. "I understand. I ran into him, and the guy that comes from behind and makes contact is at fault. I take full responsibility on the incident."
8. Finally, a yellow -- The IndyCar Series' bid to complete three consecutive races without a full-course caution for the first time since 1986 came to a bruising end on Lap 64 when Bourdais and Newgarden crashed heavily.
That made for a total of 224 consecutive laps of caution-free racing.
Newgarden was a lap behind at the time, but the rookie was dicing with Bourdais, who was on track for a third-place finish. Bourdais had just completed his final pit stop and he lost control of his car exiting Turn 9 on cold tires. The Dragon Racing entry shot back onto the track, collecting Newgarden's Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing entry and sending it into a hard double impact with a concrete wall lined with tires.
Bourdais was shaken after Newgarden's gearbox impacted his helmet, while Newgarden suffered an injury to his index finger that was to be evaluated Monday in Indianapolis.
"Unfortunately, Bourdais came right across the track and I had nowhere to go," Newgarden said. "I kept my hands on the wheel because it happened so fast and that's when my finger got hurt. It's the hardest hit I've ever had."
"I don't know what happened, but I was the guy turning the wheel so it's my fault for what occurred," Bourdais told NBCN.
9. Rubens cracks the top five -- Rubens Barrichello finally scored a top-5 finish in what has been a frustrating rookie season for the veteran Brazilian with KV Racing Technology. Barrichello was much more comfortable on the smooth Sonoma road course than he has been on IndyCar's bumpy street circuits, and his fourth-place finish improved on the seventh place he'd earned this year at Iowa Speedway.
"I think that it's more to the fact that I'm familiar with the track than the car itself," Barrichello said. "I still haven't got the balance that I wish to have. I think I had a good car today, solid, but there was a little bit of understeer. I was able to just push, push, push. But it's quite a lot different [than Formula One], just the driving. Some of the tracks are very, very different from Europe."
10. Just two to go! -- The IndyCar Series is back in action next weekend on the Baltimore street circuit, then the season wraps up Sept. 15 with a 500-mile oval race at Auto Club Speedway in California.
Power will clinch his first series championship next weekend at Baltimore if he wins. He is the defending race champion.