CLICK: Full race results from Sonoma Raceway
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Scott Dixon clinched his second victory of the year in what has up to now been been a difficult 2014 season for himself and for the Ganassi team, but which finally came good again at Sonoma Raceway thanks to a strong pit stop performance that put him in the perfect position to pick up the win when longtime race leaders Will Power, Graham Rahal and Mike Conway all fell short.
After the overnight 6.0 magnitude earthquake in Northern California had left many of the drivers feeling a little rattled and shaken in all senses of the word, the race got underway on schedule under flawless blue skies and brilliant sunshine. Pole winner Will Power and fellow front row man Josef Newgarden duly led the 22-car field to the green flag to get the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma underway at the 85 on 2.385-mile, 12-turn Sonoma Raceway, a venue that normally suits Power down to the ground and which this time could have proven to be the key in finally clinching the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series title.
Power and Newgarden got away cleanly but behind them the bunching up into turns 1 and 2 saw Sebastian Bourdais get into the back of Ryan Briscoe and both cars run into the dirt, while Helio Castroneves also got knocked into a spin that left him side-on across the track where he was collected by James Hinchcliffe who had nowhere else to go; other cars including that of Takuma Sato also sustained minor collision damage as they made their way through.
That brought out the safety car for a couple of laps, and when the green flag came out once more it was still Power from Newgarden at the front with an unwell Scott Dixon in third ahead of his Ganassi team mate Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay already up to fifth thanks to the first lap shake-up despite having started in tenth position. This time the race got off to a calmer start, although there was a rapid return to pit lane for Helio Castroneves who after receiving a new front wing under the caution now needed some body work cutting away from the right rear pod, dropping him to the back of the field but crucially still not off the lead lap.
Several drivers who had been left out of position down the running order by a poor qualifying outcome or as a result of the first lap melee soon opted for early strategic pit tops, among them Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson and Jack Hawksworth, but Power himself left it until the end of lap 17 to come in at the same time as the two Ganassi cars, with Newgarden in next time by. However when they came back out, the leaders found themselves frustratingly tangled up in traffic from those who had gone off-sync earlier in the race and it took a while before the differing pit strategy cycles shook out, leaving Power back out in front with a big lead. Dixon had got the jump on Newgarden for second and Hunter-Reay was now in front of Kanaan, followed by Marco Andretti and Justin Wilson.
Power's lead had grown to over 11 seconds when Dale Coyne Racing's Carlos Huertas ground to a halt in turn 6 on lap 29 to bring out the second full course caution of the afternoon. Kanaan was the only car among the leaders to pit in search of trying something different, so when the race got back to green on lap 35 it was Power ahead of Dixon, Newgarden, Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Wilson.
The latest green didn't last long, a new full course caution materialising seconds later when Sebastian Saavedra, Helio Castroneves and Sebastian Bourdais tried to go three-wide around the turn 7 hairpin and inevitably ended up spinning the outside car - Saavedra in this case - out in the attempt, the nose of the #17 scouring contact down the left hand side of Briscoe's car as it threaded its way past. Remarkably given the extent of the contact, this time Briscoe was able to continue without pit lane repairs.
The leaders did opt to pit under this caution, which promoted Kanaan and his cohort of early stoppers into the top spots for the next restart on lap 39. That meant Ed Carpenter Racing's Mike Conway was in second ahead of Briscoe, Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato and Sebastien Bourdais, while Scott Dixon had narrowly won the race off pit road to pick up seventh place ahead of Power. Conway immediately took advantage of his good fortune and muscled his way past Kanaan for the lead, while the hairpin once again proved the scene of further dramatic developments as Will Power spun out of eighth place on his cold prime tyres when the turbo kicked. He dropped all the way to the back of the field, along with Carlos Munoz who had a spin of his own at the same spot in sympathy with Power's plight.
No caution was required for these impromptu donut displays, but they had certainly turned the race on its head: Power was now even behind his Penske team mate Castroneves, who until this point in the race had been the recipient of all the bad luck going for Penske. It had given a whole new twist to the championship battle which just minutes before had looked all-but decided in Power's favour, whereas now the Australian was singularly unable to make any forward progress on his flat-spotted tyres, struggling even to stay on the track at times.
Meanwhile Conway had pulled out a ten second lead over the field before his deferred final pit stop of the day on lap 60, from which he emerged in traffic in 11th place but crucially ahead of Rahal and Kanaan who had pitted moments earlier. Two laps later and the traffic around Conway disappeared as it became time for them to take their own final stops, and in short order Conway was back out in front of the race but now with Rahal closed up right on his rear wing. The #15's pace superiority was so great that Rahal made it look easy when he forced his way past Conway at the hairpin on lap 64 to claim the lead for himself.
The only question now was whether Rahal had the fuel to make it to the finish and take his first IndyCar win since his series début at St Pete in 2008. The signs were not promising, as even Conway was having to go to extremes to conserve fuel like mad to have a chance of making it to the chequered flag, and he had three laps in hand over Rahal. Kanaan was in a similar situation to Rahal, but Dixon and Hunter-Reay were all looking good to to the finish ahead of Pagenaud who had climbed his way up to sixth place ahead of Montoya.
The first man to blink was Kanaan, who was on pit lane with 12 laps to go. Knowing that he wouldn't make it to the finish he opted instead to make the stop sooner rather than later to take advantage of fresh tyres. Nonetheless the stop dropped Kanaan down to 16th place putting him behind even Will Power, who now that he had a new set of red option tyres bolted on to the #12 was finally making some forward progress again and putting some distance between himself and his team mate - and main title rival - Castroneves in the process.
The yellows that the Rahal Letterman Lanigan race team so desperately needed stubbornly refused to come out and with three laps remaining Rahal was forced to pit for a splash and dash, the frustration of the moment causing him to run off the track and then incur a pit lane speeding penalty to add to his woes meaning that he ended up finishing in 20th place. And as soon as Rahal dived for pit lane, Dixon and Hunter-Reay made their move on Conway knowing that he had no margin on fuel with which to respond, and they quickly raced away to clinch first and second places respectively at the chequered flag.
Sadly Conway was not to join them on the podium, the #20 car running dry just a couple of corners from the finish; momentum and sheer willpower kept the car rolling across the line but by then Conway had dropped to 14th place. Among those surging past him through the final turn was a three-wide battle for ninth place between Wilson, Bourdais and Power and it was Power who got the best drive out of the corner and appeared to steal the position by a nose from Wilson. However, a post-race review found that Power had improved his position under a local waved yellow for Conway's stuttering car and as a result he was reset behind Wilson in tenth place in the final results.
That made for a two point deduction, but even so Power had managed to walk away from Sonoma with a 51 point lead in the championship battle over Castroneves, a significant advantage even allowing for Fontana offering double points next weekend. Meanwhile Simon Pagenaud kept himself mathematically in the chase for the title after finishing in third place ahead of Sato, Montoya, Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin and Marco Andretti.
Of course, Power has gone into the season finale with a big lead before only to see the title slip away at the last minute. But this time, surely, the advantage he has in hand heading to Fontana is too great for either Castroneves or Pagenaud to overhaul? If Power doesn't clinch it next Saturday night, then it'll surely be the second seismic event in the region in under a week.
Even so, you never know: as the saying goes, it ain't over till it's over. And the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season will finally be over in less than six days' time.
See full race results from Sonoma Raceway
and the latest Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings.