SONOMA, Calif. – The Verizon IndyCar Series season finale wrapped up in Sonoma with Scott Dixon carrying a 29 point lead over Alexander Rossi. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi’s teammate, would start from pole with Dixon lining up alongside him. Row 2 saw Josef Newgarden starting alongside Marco Andretti while rookie Patricio O’Ward and Alexander Rossi comprised row 3.
After qualifying on the black side-walled Firestone primary tires, Rossi’s strategy was clear; manage tire degradation, run longer into the first fuel stint, and have a nice brand new pair of sticker re Firestone option tires for the end of the race.
If one were to simply look at the scoring pylon at the end of the day, they might assume that this strategy didn’t quite work out for Alexander Rossi, who ultimately finished one spot lower than he started in 7th.
Of course, there is much more to the story of the race.
On lap 1, Turn 1, Alexander Rossi made contact with teammate Marco Andretti as the pair headed up the hill towards Turn 2. Rossi damaged his front wing and right front suspension badly, dropping him all the way to the back of the field before he hit the pits at the end of lap 1.
Rossi would change the front wing, make minor repairs, and put those brand new Firestone red option tires on. Rossi then proceeded to lap the 2.3-mile circuit with aggression, lap after lap, as he tried to pull out ahead of the race leaders behind him as much as possible in order to not get lapped and hopefully catch a lucky yellow.
On lap 15, the leaders hit pit road, Hunter-Reay followed by Scott Dixon. Josef Newgarden would hit pitlane a lap later. Will Power was the last of the leaders to pit on lap 17. The big winner after the first exchange of pit stops, however, would be Simon Pagenaud who used an undercut maneuver to jump up to P3. Pagenaud’s Penske team called him in on lap 12 which allowed him to get off the quickly degrading Firestone option tires.
Rossi’s Andretti Autosport team seemingly made the decision to try and switch him to a fuel-saving strategy at this point, which essentially negated any advantage gained from his blazing run on the option tires after his first lap incident. After Rossi pit for the second time on lap 26, he rejoined one lap down, behind leader Hunter-Reay and Dixon.
Running together on track with his championship rival for the first time all afternoon, Rossi was able to pass the #9 of Dixon after several laps. This left just his teammate in the #28 between himself and getting back on the lead lap.
While Ryan Hunter-Reay did Rossi no favors in terms of moving over for his championship contending teammate, he did pit on lap 38 which allowed Rossi to unlap himself.
The race would take a turn towards Rossi’s fortune shortly thereafter. On lap 43, the yellow flag flew for the #15 RLL Honda of Graham Rahal which came to a halt just before Turn 7 with what was ultimately determined to be a battery box failure. This meant that Alexander Rossi was now not only on the lead lap, but would be coming from the middle of the pack on fresh tires after the restart.
The Andretti Autosport ace took full advantage of this opportunity, making pass after exciting pass through turns 7, 9, and 11 lap after lap before eventually finding himself in 5th place trying to run down Simon Pagenaud. It appeared that perhaps with one more yellow flag, the championship could start to come to the American Rossi.
However, as the laps ticked away and the gap to Pagenaud grew, it was clear that the leaders would make it to the end of the race after making their final pit stops around the lap 60 mark. This meant that Rossi had to try and save some fuel and hope for a caution. Marco Andretti found his way back around Rossi, leaving Rossi to fend off Sebastien Bourdais.
However, on the final lap of the race, Rossi ran dry of fuel allowing Bourdais to pass him for 6th place. Rossi would ultimately finish the race in 7th and the 2018 season in second.
The race was won by Ryan Hunter-Reay, who led flag to flag and ultimately had a flawless weekend. Marco Andretti’s strong finish in fifth meant that two Andretti Autosport cars finished in the top 5. Third place was claimed by 2018 Indy 500 Winner Will Power with his teammate Simon Pagenaud taking home a strong fourth place finish for Penske.
However, the day and the season belonged to Scott Dixon. The Chip Ganassi Racing man finished second in Sonoma and clinched his fifth IndyCar Championship. Dixon now trails only AJ Foyt who has 7 championships to his name.
Dixon took to the stage with his family, wife Emma and daughters Poppy and Tilly, to celebrate with his crew and team owner Chip Ganassi. Honda also had their team members on the stage just above the Honda-powered #9 machine to celebrate the manufacturer’s crown.
For Chip Ganassi, Dixon’s triumph marks an astounding 12th championship for the racer turned team owner.
The IndyCar series returns March 10th from the Streets of St. Petersburg as Scott Dixon looks to defend his championship. NBC will take over as the exclusive home of the IndyCar series, including the Indy 500 in May.
With many seats still available and rumors swirling about two-time Formula One World Champion and 24 Hour of Le Mans Winner Fernando Alonso possibly joining IndyCar’s ranks, the offseason is sure to be a newsworthy one. For continuing coverage of all things IndyCar, stay tuned to Open-Wheels.com and follow us on social media.
Photo credit IndyCar Media.