SAN FRANCISCO – After a tour of San Francisco by motorized cable car Wednesday to promote the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the four contenders in the championship faced questions before dinner at a restaurant overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf, Hyde Street Pier and Alcatraz Island.
Will Power started the Q&A by recounting the tour across the famous Golden Gate Bridge and through the city, citing several stops along the way.
“We had some crabs,” Power said, pausing for comedic effect. “The good kind.”
Power’s joke broke up the other three drivers – Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden – and lightened the mood heading into Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma, which awards double the usual points and will decide the 2018 champion. Dixon, seeking the fifth championship of his storied career, enters the race with a 29-point lead over Rossi.
A fifth championship would put Dixon in rare company. Only one driver – A.J. Foyt with seven – has won more than four championships among the various sanctioning bodies over the course of American open-wheel racing history. Four other drivers – Dixon, Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti – each has four championships.
But Dixon says a fifth is far from decided.
“The goal is to close it out,” said Dixon, who ranks third in all-time victories behind Foyt and Andretti with 44. “We wish we were coming in here with a 109-point lead, but that’s not the case. For me personally, it would mean a lot. It would probably definitely stand out as the best championship.”
Power and Newgarden are mathematically eligible for the championship – both are 87 points behind Dixon – but they would need both Dixon and Rossi to encounter problems to have a chance. Given that Dixon and Rossi have combined for six of the 16 victories so far this season – and 16 podium finishes – that doesn’t appear likely.
“We’re going to try to defend it, but it’s going to be difficult,” said Newgarden, last year’s champion. “We have a very big uphill battle this weekend. If we don’t make it happen ultimately at the end of the day, we’ll just do our best to win the race. That’s really all we can do at this point.”
For Rossi, facing the best active driver with a championship on the line is a heavy but not impossible task.
“I would prefer to be second behind anyone but Scott, just because he’s so consistent,” Rossi said. “He’s won four championships for a reason. He’s definitely the hardest person to try to close a points gap on, but basically I felt like the second half of the year has been very good. If we go out and maintain that pace and performance and have a good Sunday, then I think we have a good shot at it.”
After the press conference, the four drivers sat at separate tables with journalists, who listened to stories about championships and how they’re won and lost. Newgarden, who won last year’s title in a battle that also came down to Sonoma, knows the feeling.
“It feels similar,” Newgarden said. “Regardless of where you were the year before, you always feel pressure to perform. You’re only as good as your last race in a lot of ways in racing. You always feel that pressure to go out and do your job and have a good weekend.”
At Dixon’s table, the discussion turned to Sonoma’s tricky winds, which have been known to change directions midday, turning a headwind into the esses of Turns 8, 9 and 10 into a disturbing, downhill tailwind later in the day. Rossi echoed the sentiment, saying Sonoma’s 12-turn, 2.385-mile road course – which is being replaced next year on the schedule by nearby WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca near Monterey, California – will provide one last unpredictable test for a double-points championship race.
“Dust gets on the track, and morning is very different from the late afternoon, and the early afternoon is different than the late afternoon,” said Rossi, a native of nearby Nevada City, California. “You’re always trying to guess what the conditions are going to be and how that’s going to affect your car. It’s hard to stay on top of it as the give and take goes on.”
Like Power and his encounter with seafood, any race that leads to a championship is a good kind of race. Just don’t assume you know what’s going to happen.
“Anything is possible, especially with the competition right now,” Dixon said. “The way some of these races play out can be flipped pretty easily. We’re leading right now, but that doesn’t guarantee you anything. Mathematically, lots of things can happen. We’ve just got to focus like any other race weekend and try to go out there and win.”
Nearly half the field entered this weekend – including Rossi’s Andretti Autosport and Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing – will participate in private team testing on Thursday at Sonoma Raceway. Power and Newgarden of Team Penske were among a smaller group that tested at the track on Sept. 6.
Race weekend commences with a pair of practice sessions on Friday, starting at 2 and 6 p.m. ET. The first practice streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, youtube.com/indycar and the INDYCAR Mobile app and will air on delay at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The second practice airs live on NBCSN.
A third practice is set for 2 p.m. ET Saturday ahead of Verizon P1 Award qualifying at 6 p.m. Both sessions stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, youtube.com/indycar and the INDYCAR Mobile app, with NBCSN airing a same-day qualifying telecast at 8 p.m.
Live coverage of the 85-lap race to determine the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series champion begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.