Commentary

Sonoma could be game-changer

Updated: August 23, 2013, 6:16 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

IZOD IndyCar Series championship leader Helio Castroneves was still shaking off the effects of an Aug. 10 racing accident when he arrived at Sonoma Raceway for Sunday's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Castroneves was set to compete in a Brazilian stock car race two weeks ago when his car suffered a brake failure during a practice session. The veteran Indy car pilot suffered a sprained neck and bruising and contusions to his lower legs, but he has been cleared to compete at Sonoma this weekend.

The stiffness and soreness that still linger in Castroneves' body as a result of his shunt in his homeland won't be helped by the physical nature of the 2.385-mile Sonoma road course, which features significant elevation changes that accentuate the high G-loading in the corners.

The 38-year-old completed a full day of testing at Sonoma on Wednesday in his Team Penske Indy car and reported no physical issues.

"I have to be careful, but everything is fine to drive this weekend, no problem," he said.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves may be sore after a crash earlier this month, but having the IndyCar Series points lead has to feel good.

Castroneves' biggest problem may be avoiding the disasters that seem to descend upon IndyCar Series championship contenders at Sonoma.

In seven of the eight years since Indy car racing returned to the scenic California road course, the eventual series champion lost ground in the points race at Sonoma.

What's more, the driver who eventually finished second in the championship won the Sonoma race five times and finished second on two other occasions. It's a key championship round, and the point swings can be huge -- with four of 31 points or more and the average being 18 points.

Castroneves enjoys a 31-point advantage over Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay (-65 points) and Marco Andretti (-76) are the only other drivers within 100 points of the championship leader with five races remaining in the 2013 campaign.

With 12 turns packed into just over two miles and no straight longer than a quarter mile, passing is difficult at Sonoma. The Indy car race has been won from the pole four times, and the lowest starting position for an eventual winner was fifth by Dixon in 2008.

Qualifying pace is therefore absolutely crucial, and the Wednesday test day saw Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti (the 2009 Sonoma winner and the only victor there to go on to win the championship) and Dixon run 1-2.

Defending IndyCar Series champion Hunter-Reay was third fastest Wednesday, and he paced a private test at Sonoma on Aug. 14. The American knows he has to improve on a dismal record at the track. In six starts, he has four finishes of 18th or worse and only two top-10s, though he was headed to a podium finish last year before being pushed off the track by Alex Tagliani.

Hunter-Reay lost 31 points in the championship to rival Will Power that day but came back to take the title in the final race. He promises to be aggressive this weekend.

"

Hunter-Reay It's going to be hard, but last year, we clawed back from a bigger deficit. Being late in the season, we need to go like we did last year at the end of the season, which is go for broke. We're not interested in banking results right now because it's all about the series championship.

" -- Ryan Hunter-Reay

"It's going to be hard, but last year, we clawed back from a bigger deficit," Hunter-Reay said. "Being late in the season, we need to go like we did last year at the end of the season, which is go for broke. We're not interested in banking results right now because it's all about the series championship."

Power, who is out of championship contention in 11th place, is the master of Sonoma. He put the memories of suffering a broken back during practice there in 2009 behind him by winning from the pole in 2010 and 2011. He took the pole with a track-record lap of 1 minute, 17.271 seconds last year but finished second to then-Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe in the race.

Power competed strongly for the IndyCar Series championship every year from 2010 to 2012 but has suffered through a comparatively poor season. He's in search of his first race win in 16 months.

"Especially with the year we've had, I can't wait to get back [to Sonoma]," Power said. "It's a track I've had a lot of success on. The next two [Sonoma and Baltimore] are good tracks for me.

"Although the competition has definitely heated up this year, we still expect to be running right at the front."

Power is most comfortable on natural terrain road courses, and he rates Sonoma as one of his favorites.

"It's a tough track," he said. "It's got a lot of fast stuff, but then you've got two hairpins now that you can really gain time on. It's a slippery surface, so it's a tricky compromise on setup. Definitely a hard lap to put together without a mistake, without locking a wheel or missing an apex, and it's especially hard to get a good compromise for the carousel."

Briscoe, the defending Sonoma race winner, returns to action this weekend for Panther Racing after breaking his right wrist in the July 14 Toronto race.

He was one of around a dozen drivers to participate in the Aug. 14 test and said he's ready to go.

"My wrist held up pretty good during the test, although the brace was a bit of a nuisance," he said. "But we made good progress during the test and worked through our program really well."

Panther's former driver JR Hildebrand, who was released after the Indianapolis 500, makes his first start for Bryan Herta's Barracuda Racing team this weekend.

Lucas Luhr, the 34-year old German who has teamed with Klaus Graf to dominate the past two years of American Le Mans Series competition, is making his IndyCar Series debut in a second Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing entry.

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