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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.

“Our sport is a great show. And Helio is a great show on TV himself,” is how fellow driver Simon Pagenaud put it.

Castroneves enters the race in third place, 22 points behind Newgarden and 19 behind second-place Scott Dixon. It really isn’t much of a gap, thanks to IndyCar’s system of double points.

At the Indianapolis 500 and at this race, the season finale, drivers receive twice their usual finishing points.

So, for example, if Castroneves wins in Sonoma (50 x 2 = 100 points) and Newgarden finishes third (70 points), and Dixon is second (80 points) and doesn’t reel in too many bonus points, Castroneves will wear the crown.


I’ll be honest with you. I kind of love Simon Pagenaud. I spoke to him by phone last year for an outside-the-box column on athletes’ dreams. It was maybe two weeks after he had wrapped up the IndyCar championship at Sonoma. He might have said “get lost.” He was fantastic. In fact, the Frenchman gave me the best story in the column, about waking up in a sweat, sitting bolt upright in bed as he drove into a jam and his spotter yelled “Four-wide!” in a dream.

Pagenaud is almost as smooth and urbane as Sacha Baron Cohen’s character in “Talladega Nights.” Wednesday, he paused en route to a group photo op with the Ascot Cup trophy to take some pix of the stone tiles on the winery’s patio.

And yes, he’s the defending series champion. When someone mentioned that IndyCar hasn’t seen a back-to-back champion since 2010, Pagenaud smacked the table and shouted, “Let’s get it done!”

The odds are against him, though. He’s sitting in fourth place, 34 points back of Newgarden. It’s surmountable, but Pagenaud would need some things to fall into place Sunday. He has won only one race this season, and he admitted that his team struggled to adapt when IndyCar changed its brake system this year.

“It would be bigger for me to win the second (title) in a row than the first one,” Pagenaud said. “Because I faced so many challenges this year that I didn’t expect and had to bounce back every time. The party after the race would be bigger, for sure.”


This is your long shot. Power is in fifth place, 68 points off the lead. The Australian needs to win Sunday, and he needs the other contenders to experience some unfortunate events.

But hey, strange things happen in this sport, and Power is a proven threat who won the championship in 2014. Granted, it’s been a weird season for him. He has three race wins, second only to Newgarden. But he’s started on the pole five times and hasn’t won one of those, and has crashed out of three races.

And Power might be handicapped here. He walked through Ram’s Gate with a noticeable limp. He explained that he suffered a bone bruise in his left knee while bodysurfing at Half Moon Bay. Power insists he felt no pain while pushing his brakes in the garage this week, but it’s an obstacle he didn’t need.

Power’s saving grace? Double points. He hasn’t generally been a fan of the system, and he hates them at Indianapolis, where non-IndyCar drivers have been known to wreck guys on the circuit.

“And if I win the race (Sunday) and I win the championship, I think it’s a great idea,” Power added.


I neglected to mention one thing as I ran down those other racers. They’re teammates. They all drive for Team Penske. The hostile force in all of this is Dixon, who represents Chip Ganassi Racing.

At first blush that would seem to be a disadvantage for Dixon, as if the others might team up against him. In fact, it’s likely to be the opposite. The Penske drivers will be competing for themselves. Dixon’s teammates — Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton — are out of the money.

“That means they can really help, right?” Dixon said. “They’ve got nothing to lose.”

Dixon is one of the sport’s great drivers, too. He has twice as many series championships (four) as these other top competitors combined, and at three points back he’s in a virtual tie with Newgarden. Castroneves didn’t hesitate when asked whom Newgarden should be most worried about.

“Obviously, Scott,” he said.

“For experience, for talent. And the team that he does have. Obviously, you’re checking the box.”

The laid-back New Zealander wore a smile at our table, but he didn’t produce a lot of sound bites. When someone asked him about Castroneves, Dixon said, “In personality, I’m probably one end of the spectrum, he’s the other.”

But they’re not so far apart on the track. Along with Newgarden, Castroneves and Pagenaud, they’re a pretty tightly bunched group. Tight enough, we hope, to make this race a spectacle.

As Newgarden said, “It’s always gonna come down to Sonoma.”

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