ONE: The race was over before the first turn
The importance of qualifying was writ large on the INDYCAR season finale before the completion of the first turn. Starting in sixth place, Alexander Rossi, chasing a maiden title in his 50th open-wheel race, damaged his front wing in a collision after teammate Marco Andretti had to check up just past the start/finish line.
Rossi’s car made hard contact and began to smoke copiously. As a result, the California native was forced to pit for repairs, relegating him to 25th and last place before the field had even started the third lap. At that point, barring something untoward happening to Scott Dixon, the general consensus was the championship battle was over before it even started.
As it was, Rossi drove his heart out and made it back as high as fifth, within spitting distance of Dixon, before fading in the closing laps to finish seventh. All told, Rossi made 17 on-track passes at a track where it can be very tough to make more than a handful. Put another way, after the worst of all possible starts, Rossi showed the heart of a champion. He ran each lap like he was qualifying in what was ultimately a futile but tremendous effort.
Nothing to say other than congratulations and wow to @scottdixon9. Can’t wait to go at it with you again next year. In the meantime, 10k ski? 👊🏼
— Alexander Rossi (@AlexanderRossi) September 17, 2018
Headed into the race weekend, most of the smart money was on Dixon for a number of reasons. There was a 29-point advantage in the standings, a decade-and-a-half more competition experience and, oh yeah, four championships. But credit to Rossi who never stopped trying to make up a huge deficit. His time will come.
TWO: Dixon is a worthy champion
On the other end of the spectrum, it was a day of celebration for Scott Dixon. The New Zealander picked up the fifth career open-wheel crown (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015 and 2018) of his illustrious career.
It’s still sinking in,championship #5
🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆What a team I have behind me. They are the best in the business.Can not thank everyone enough for making this dream a reality. Cheers pic.twitter.com/vbAwZoVwx4
— Scott Dixon (@scottdixon9) September 17, 2018
Dixon won three of 17 races on the 2018 schedule (Detroit, Texas Motor Speedway & Gateway Motorsports Park). He also secured nine podium finishes, good for an average finish of 4.2 – gaudy numbers, no question. And now, he has even one more title than his friend and mentor Dario Franchitti.
Interesting to note, too, that Dixon’s driver for the weekend was none other than the four-time Scottish champion. Dario even appeared on the champion’s stage at the end, looking as debonair as he always does. But it’s clear that passing Franchitti isn’t the last goal on Dixon’s list; looming ahead is a record seven titles won by the legendary AJ Foyt.
“We have achieved a lot together, but there are no signs of him slowing down,” noted team principal Chip Ganassi when 38-year-old Dixon extended his contract a month ago. “He’s still the guy the championship goes through, and you know you have to beat him to get on the top step. He’s a driver that’s always thinking about the next race; how he’s going to approach it, attack it and ultimately win it.”
Win it, Dixon did. The only question now is how many more titles he can snag before it’s finally time to hang up his driving gloves.
THREE: Solid Debut for O’Ward
O’Ward, just 19 years of age, had an incredible season in the lower-echelon series. He captured nine of the 17 races while earning an average finish of 2.4. And while his promise had certainly been noticed, few expected him to announce himself on the scene in quite the manner he did at Sonoma Raceway.
First up, Pato qualified fifth – a stunning effort for a rookie. Even the champion took notice. “What a phenomenal job by Pat,” said Dixon. “That’s amazing on his first try to be in the Fast 6. Obviously, he’s really talented.”
O’Ward backed it up in the main event, finishing ninth in his Harding Group Chevy.
— Patricio O'Ward (@PatricioOWard) September 17, 2018
Of course, the big question is what happens next for the young man. O’Ward’s certainly shown he is capable of running with the best in the sport and, with the right equipment, should be one to watch in the upcoming years.
FOUR: Tough TV Call
When I arrived home from the track — besides saying hello to my wife and dog — one of the first things I wanted to do was to sit down and watch the TV broadcast. I was particularly interested in seeing the start and what, exactly, had transpired with Alexander Rossi. But a red flag in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway meant live coverage from Sonoma was significantly delayed by NBCSN.
There were some cut-ins before the MENCS race was completed. However, we still missed multiple laps in the crucial opening phase. To be fair to the schedulers, the stock car playoff opener ended up running for three-and-a-half hours – that’s significantly longer than their three previous MENCS races at LVMS. The spring 2018 race was two hours, 49 minutes; the 2017 race finished in two hours, 56 minutes; and the 2016 race ran in two hours, 53 minutes. Had the race time matched the previous trio of races, or even come close, we would have been OK.
It was a tough situation for all concerned, especially those diehard INDYCAR fans. But I’m not sure what else could have happened here; there’s an obvious marketing boost for both sides in trying to tie these races together. At the very least, I’m sure the timing of trying to go back-to-back on championship weekend will be looked at closely in 2019 by NBCSN.
FIVE: Sonoma will be missed
And finally, after 14 years of open-wheel action, including the last four years as the season finale, Sonoma Raceway will — very sadly — not be on INDYCAR’s schedule in 2019. For me, especially, I’m super disappointed to see my home track removed from consideration. Instead, it’s been replaced by Laguna Seca which is, to be fair, a tremendous track.
“First and foremost, from my perspective, there isn’t a finer team in motorsports than the group at Sonoma Raceway,” noted INDYCAR’s Chief Marketing Officer C.J. O’Donnell. “I would not even begin to say it is attributed to them or their efforts.”
From my perspective, I couldn’t agree with this statement more. The staff go out of their way to help with any questions or issues and they’re always looking to go the extra mile. They’re a first-class group of folks and I’m sad I’ll only see them for NASCAR next year. Unfortunately, the decision appears financial in nature and the series hopes Laguna Seca will be a more profitable location for the finale.
Either way, I’m hoping there is a place again for Sonoma on the schedule in the not-too-distant future.