SONOMA, Calif. — It’s clear that Ryan Briscoe needed a victory more than Team Penske teammate Will Power in Sunday’s Go Pro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. After all, Briscoe had not won a race since Texas in 2010 while Power is closing in on his first IZOD IndyCar Series title.
But Power had plenty of reason to feel good about his second-place finish because it not only clinched the Mario Andretti Trophy as the Road Course Champion for the third year in a row but combined with some misfortune to his championship contenders has allowed him to open a sizeable lead in the championship.
Ryan Hunter-Reay entered the race weekend just five points behind Power. It was a six-point deficit after Power won the pole on Saturday but Hunter-Reay was in contention for the race victory on a restart with 10 laps to go while running third behind Briscoe and Power. As Hunter-Reay entered Turn 7 he was tagged by Alex Tagliani, spinning out the Andretti Autosport driver and leaving his Dallara/Chevrolet stranded on the race course. Hunter-Reay would go on to finish 18th and had a face-to-face confrontation with Tagliani on pit road after the race.
More about that later.
Scott Dixon was 29 points behind Power in fourth place but a first-lap spin when Helio Castroneves ran into him, followed by a broken front wing later in the race doomed Dixon’s chances. He was able to continue through his fuel stint without replacing the front wing but when he came into the pits to have the nose replaced, he ran over the air hose forcing IndyCar officials to enforce a drive-through penalty.
Dixon finished 15th.
So after it was all over, Power’s lead in the championship increased to 36 points over Hunter-Reay, 41 over sixth-place finisher and Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves and 54 over Dixon with two races remaining.
Power also had minor misfortune on his final pit stop after dominating the race leading three times for 57 laps in the 85-lap contest. He made his final pit stop on Lap 64 just moments before a crash involving Sebastien Bourdais and Josef Newgarden brought out the first yellow flag since Toronto on July 8 — a total of 225 green flag laps and 2-3/4ths races.
But Power’s team had problems attaching the right-rear wheel. The extra time in pit lane was crucial because when he returned to the track he was in a pack of slower cars having to circulate around the 2.358-mile, 12-turn road course second-place driver Briscoe made his pit stop.
Briscoe was able to get out of the pits and onto the track before Power made it around the course and took over the lead.
“I had a slow pit stop because we had the eight-second lead,” Power explained. “Had I not got held up on that out-lap, I don’t think he would have got us. These guys, when the pit is left open, doddle around, because they’re a lap down or whatever, cost me dearly. You can’t pass under yellow. I would have gotten a penalty if I went motoring by these guys.
“That’s racing. I think in the drivers meetings, maybe race control needs to be more adamant about when it goes yellow, there’s an accident on the track, you have to be cautious in that zone. But this is a whole lap.”
Briscoe would lead the remaining 20 laps to score his seventh career IZOD IndyCar Series victory. Briscoe finished second at Sonoma in 208 and 2009 and was third last year.
“We always get excited when we come to this race,” Briscoe said. “For whatever reason it is, Team Penske cars are always strong. Will and I kind of dominated all weekend. So hats off to Will, as well.
“It feels good to finish the season strong, for sure. It’s great to get the win. You get into a slump, you know, 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, 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, ran strong. Hopefully it’s the start of maybe a couple more wins in the next two races. We’ll see.”
Briscoe may have had a little help getting the lead when Power was held up during the caution period but he was able to gas it when he needed to on two late race restarts to take firm control of the outcome of the contest.
“Will on those restarts, he was exactly where I was for the start of the race,” Briscoe explained. “I knew the advantage that I had being on the left-hand side. The restarts are pretty early, and you have sort of one, two, three kinks to the left before you brake up into turn one. It’s a lot shorter distance.
“For me it was about gassing it, making sure I had the rpm right, wasn’t going to wheel spin, be nice and clean. It went according to plan and we went from there both times.”
The top two finishers were in Chevrolets, which clinched the Manufacturer’s Championship for Chevy in its first year in IndyCar since 2005. Simon Pagenaud also clinched the Rookie of the Year Title with a seventh-place finish.
Dario Franchitti was third in a Dallara/Honda followed by Rubens Barrichello in a Dallara/Chevrolet. Graham Rahal rounded out the top-five in a Service Central/Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda.
Shortly after bringing his car on to pit lane, Hunter-Reay climbed out and marched down to Tagliani’s pit area where the two drivers had a heated face-to-face exchange regarding the incident that may have ruined Hunter-Reay’s chances at a championship.
“He’s an idiot – that’s why he has one win in 25 years of racing,” Hunter-Reay said of Tagliani. “He’s an idiot. He’s known for doing that stuff. I can’t tell you how frustrated I am. I ran so hard all day; pushed so hard to get from seventh to third place. We had a great car for the end. It’s usual Tag – he’s thinking in front of himself rather than 10 feet ahead. He got in there, locked up the brakes and ran right into me.
“I can’t tell you how frustrated I am after the engine problems last (race, at Mid-Ohio), and then this. We had a podium (finish). I can’t get over it right now. It’s unreal.”
Tagliani tried to defend his side in the story.
“The only thing I can say is that there’s probably not going to be enough apologies to make Ryan [Hunter-Reay] feel better,” he said. “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. With that said, I pay my dues to be here and I’m allowed to race with everybody. I had a really good run on Dario, I was beside him into the corner and when I turned, I just missed the apex and Ryan was right there. If I could rewind, I would like to avoid pushing him, that’s for sure.
“In racing, I’ve been in situations where I want to be nice and I want to be a gentleman, but then the people behind just blow by you. When I’m out there, I want to bring the Barracuda Racing car into the best position possible. Today, I think we had a top five car, but it was a race incident.”
While Hunter-Reay was fuming on pit lane, Team Penske was celebrating in Victory Lane as two of its three drivers swept the top two positions.
Although Power moved one step closer to the championship he still wants to return to Victory Lane. He has won three races this season but none since Brazil on April 29.
“I’m in win mode,” Power said. “I just want to win another race. You know, every time we’ve been there, like Toronto, then a yellow comes and ruins our day. An engine change at Edmonton, get back to third.
“Wins are right there, but we’re not getting them. You have to think of the championship, as well. If we have the car to win, we go for it. Obviously, as you get further into the season, you become more aware of what these guys are doing, if they’re behind you or in front of you, and know how aggressive you’ve got to be.
“It started well all the way to the last stop. I had the quickest car, quite easily keeping a handy lead. Yeah, went yellow. We had a slow stop, probably lost four seconds there, then came across a bunch of guys on the track who just doddled all the way back. I don’t know who those guys were. That’s when I was using the word ‘wanker’. Cost me the race.
“But I couldn’t be happier for Ryan. 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 got a good points buffer. Yeah, I think it was a good race. Don’t know what else to say. We led heaps and then we didn’t.”
The IZOD IndyCar Series leaves San Francisco Bay and heads off to Chesapeake Bay for next weekend’s Baltimore Grand Prix – a race where Power is the defending winner.