It's fair to say that IndyCar as a whole has had a bit of a torrid time of late: from the accident-packed Toronto outing to the controversy that raged after the end of the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, you couldn't blame IndyCar if they figured that it would be good to have a breather and take a nice quiet break away from anything exciting.
Which is, as it happens, exactly what they got with the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at the 11-turn, 2.303-mile Infineon Raceway in Sears Point, California: a race that was almost completely devoid of either incident or anything contentious. They sadly slipped up toward the end with a couple of accidents and penalties that will have people irritated if not outright furious, but for the better part of 75 laps they almost succeeded in putting together the ultimate incident-free race of the year.
It was clear from the outset that having secured a dominant 1-2-3 lockout in qualifying, the Penske team priority was to preserve it at every step of the afternoon right through to the chequered flag. Moreover, it also seemed apparent that the orders to Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were to act as wing men, bodyguards and all-round mother hens for pole sitter Will Power. Getting him to victory lane was the priority, but just as important was making sure as many cars as possible got between Power and Franchitti as possible to ensure that Will made up the maximum amount of ground on Dario in the championship as possible.
"I was trying to keep Dario behind me. I knew we had a good shot today at a 1-2-3 finish for Team Penske, and that was our first goal today," admitted Briscoe upfront. "It has been two years now since the three of us have been teammates and we have been working so hard for this Team Penske sweep."
Power immediately jumped away from the field as the race went green, while Briscoe seemed to be tasked with safeguarding Penske's rear quarters and holding up Franchitti and Scott Dixon as much as possible. And so it went, for almost 70 laps, through lap-after-lap and multiple pit stop sequences, with the running order at the top barely varying and no one threatening to do anything off-plan.
At least Tony Kanaan tried doing something different by going for an early pit stop on lap 6 to put himself off-sync, but it never came to anything and ultimately he would exit the race on lap 38 after a throttle cable failed, nearly resulting in a nasty accident but instead allowing him to just make pit lane before the car died. Kanaan subsequently amused himself by hanging out with the VERSUS TV commentators for much of the rest of the race.
Otherwise, the main points of interest were the advance of Giorgio Pantano slowly but surely from 11th place past the likes of Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe to take up sixth place behing the Penske/Ganassi big players, which is as much as anyone could be expected to do especially on a road course notoriously resistent to allowing too much overtaking. EJ Viso also did a creditable job making up positions early on, but sadly would sink back to ninth place by the end - exactly where he started.
Viso's team mate Takuma Sato never fails to deliver at least a little entertainment during a race, and by lap 62 he was clearly struggling on worn tyres and fighting desperately to retain his position from Martin Plowman. It didn't work, and Plowman went past - Sebastian Saavedra almost succeeded in following straight through to make it a two for one, but Sato closed the door while up the road Plowman made a rookie error and ran straight off at the next corner. He was able to rejoin without losing the position he'd just taken, and race control deemed that he had gained no advantage from the overshoot and didn't demand he let Sato back through. In any case, Sato's problems deepened when Saavedra promptly pulled off his own successful move on the #5, and Sato would end up a lap down by the end of the race.
Pit stops came, pit stops went, but nothing changed the basic structure of the race which ran caution-free until lap 66. By this point only 18 cars were left on the lead lap, and the biggest problem for Power was the lapped traffic he was encountering that was proving stubbornly resistent to letting him past. It wasn't that they were holding him up so much as they were so involved with their own backmarker battles there was the real risk that they could have a collision and collect Power in the fall-out.