SONOMA, Calif. – Ahead of this morning’s final practice before Verizon P1 Award qualifying for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Verizon IndyCar Series James Hinchcliffe looked quite the prognosticator.
“Qualifying is going to be a bit of a lottery,” the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda said.
The results of the practice – along with a pair of incidents involving Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden – make the Canadian’s comment appear spot on. Who will come out on top in this afternoon’s qualifying for the 2016 season finale is anyone’s guess.
Andretti Autosport and Team Penske drivers owned the top seven spots in the 45-minute session at Sonoma Raceway, with the track record inching closer within reach.
GOPRO GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA: Practice 3 results; Combined practice results; Segment 1 qualifying groups
Marco Andretti led a continued impressive performance by the Andretti Autosport four-car assault, clocking the fastest lap of the weekend thus far, 1 minute, 16.3052 seconds (112.522 mph) in the No. 27 Snapple Honda. The 29-year-old American, whose first career win came at Sonoma in his rookie season 10 years ago, was within five-hundredths of a second of Will Power’s lap record set in 2015 qualifying.
“It’s all good,” Andretti said. “I got my second new tire run in and we got a lot out of it this morning. Hopefully the team is hitting on something and we can carry it into next year.”
Andretti cars finished the practice in first, third, fifth and seventh positions, while Penske entries occupied the second, fourth and sixth spots.
Juan Pablo Montoya was second in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:16.3756, 112.418 mph), ahead of Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 DHL Honda (1:16.4339, 112.332 mph), Power in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy (1:16.4396, 112.324 mph) and Carlos Munoz in the No. 26 hhgregg Honda for Andretti (1:16.4418, 112.321 mph).
Three rounds of knockout qualifying for the pole position and the important championship point begins at 6 p.m. ET and airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
Power, who owns a record five poles along with three race wins at Sonoma, is second in the championship standings and the only driver who could catch leader and teammate Simon Pagenaud. The Verizon IndyCar Series championship is being decided at the final race of the season for the 11th consecutive year.
Pagenaud, sixth fastest this morning in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet, leads Power by 43 points. Sunday’s 85-lap race on the 2,385-mile, 11-turn permanent road course in Northern California pays double race points, with a maximum of 104 available for the taking.
Newgarden, currently fifth in the championship but with a chance to finish as high as second, suffered a setback in the practice when his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka/ECR Chevrolet ran hard over the Turn 2 curbing and slid into the outside tire barrier. Newgarden was uninjured but the car will require quick repairs.
“We’ll be all right for qualifying,” Newgarden said. “We didn’t help our cause here in Practice 3 but I think we’ll be fine. We’ve got a pretty good Fuzzy’s Vodka car; we’ve been good here in the past.”
Near the end of the session, Hinchcliffe’s car made contact with the barrier exiting the Turn 11 hairpin, sustaining significant left-side damage. The new “Dancing with the Stars” favorite was uninjured, running back to the pit lane after exiting the car.
Prior to the practice, Hinchcliffe explained the difficulties that the Sonoma track presents.
“The track here is so difficult,” he said. “The grip is so low. The tires last exactly one lap (at their peak), maybe even less than a full lap, to be fair. So you're going to see a very interesting grid.
“Some guys are going to nail it, some guys might not. You may see some surprises, not only of guys being up further than you'd expect, some surprises in terms of maybe quick guys being down a bit further.”
A delayed telecast of the practice session airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, leading directly into the live qualifying telecast at 6 p.m. Race coverage of the climactic race on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network/