SONOMA — A Kiwi, a Brazilian, a Frenchman, an Aussie and a Tennessean walked into a winery. I’m not really sure where this joke is going, but I know where the IndyCar racing circuit is headed. Toward a showdown.
The champion of 2017 open-wheel racing will be crowned Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, and the picture going into the GoPro Sonoma Grand Prix — the final race of the IndyCar season — is a tangled mess. Seven drivers have a mathematical shot at the title, and for five of them it’s a realistic opportunity.
Wednesday, those five showed up for a smile-and-chat at Ram’s Gate Winery. It struck me that the patrons and workers of Ram’s Gate, which is perched atop a hill near the track, probably have a better view of Sonoma Raceway than anyone who isn’t a sheep. In a back room at the winery, a smattering of reporters gathered around a massive wood table. The fast-and-furious five were then delivered to us, one after the other.
I will introduce them here in the same order they were presented to us. All of them were happy, friendly and relaxed. Sunday, none of them will be friendly or relaxed. And by Monday, only one of them will be happy.
I know, he sounds foreign, but this is the guy from just outside of Nashville. His parents spelled his name with an ‘f’ only so he could one day dominate the cosmopolitan IndyCar circuit and endorse Renaults on European television.
Starting in 2014, Newgarden finished 13th overall, then seventh, then fourth. I think you know where he’s going with this. But can he get there in 2017?
Newgarden, at 26, is by far the baby of this group. And yet he carries himself with a casual confidence that seems made for racing. And if his relative inexperience is a burden, Newgarden also has a clear advantage over the other four: He currently leads the standings.
The advantage isn’t merely numerical.
“It’s always better to lead than chase, in my opinion,” Newgarden said. “Why would you not want to be in that position? Makes your job easier. From a strategy standpoint, you don’t have to rely on people finishing in a certain position. You know that if you win the race, you win the championship.”
One ominous note for Newgarden: His lead was substantially bigger two weeks ago, before he slid into a guardrail exiting pit row at Watkins Glen and was dented from behind by driver Sebastien Bourdais. Newgarden finished 18th, a tremendous favor to NorCal motorheads hoping for an ultra-competitive race on Sunday.
All of these guys are racing to win. But if Castroneves were to take the checkered flag Sunday, there would be a lot of silent fist pumps for the veteran Brazilian.
Castroneves, 42, has been a fixture on the IndyCar tour since 2001. During that time he has been a four-time runner-up in the points standings; 13 times he has finished in the top five. But he has never been a champion.
And he may never be. All signs point to his employer, Team Penske, slimming down from four cars to three in 2018, and everyone figures Castroneves will be odd man out, possibly moved to Penske’s sports-car division. It would be a huge blow to the many race fans cheering for the gregarious driver who won the fifth season of “Dancing With the Stars” and celebrates victories by climbing the nearest race fence like Spider-Man.