Although the Verizon IndyCar Series promoted that six drivers technically had a shot at the title during Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the focus for the most part focused on just three. Two of them were expected to be there at the start of the season, the other was not. It was no surprise then, that Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon were in contention, but the presence of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal was certainly unexpected. Of course, all three had a shot at the title, but only one of these drivers could take it. After IndyCar starter Paul Blevin waved the twin checkered flags after the 85th lap was completed at Sonoma Raceway Sunday, everyone watching whether on site or at home on television knew one thing… there is indeed only one champion, but also only one Ice Man.
Needing to win and also get a little help, New Zealand’s Scott Dixon took advantage of both plus coupled it with a superior strategy from CGR general manager Mike Hull to take the win on Sunday and in turn join his former teammate Dario Franchitti as the Verizon IndyCar Series’ only four-time champions. Dixon showed potential early and often on Sunday at the challenging 2.52 mile circuit, charging from ninth to fifth in the opening five laps.
While Dixon moved forward, the early kinks in the armor of Graham Rahal started to show as he faded from his sixth starting spot to ninth early, the beginning of what would be a difficult run of luck for the popular veteran. Still, things remained in Juan Pablo Montoya’s corner, as long as he could hold his position near the front, the championship trophy seemed destined to be lifted by the Colombian.
Ultimately however, the key moment of the race and perhaps the entire season occurred just past the midway point Sunday, when trying to advance his position Montoya came into contact with his own Penske teammate Will Power following a race restart. The incident dropped the pair to 23rd and 24th respectively for the following resumption of the race, yet Montoya with where Dixon and Rahal were at that point was still projected to win the title at that point.
With those ahead of Dixon and Rahal heading to the pit lane due to various race strategies, the two challengers made their way into the top five and each were in prime position to take advantage of Montoya’s mistake. Suddenly, as he had during the start, Rahal began to falter. He first gave way to Dixon’s teammate Charlie Kimball and two laps later would lose two more places following a minor off course excursion.
Eventually, the closing scenario would come down to Dixon, who eventually moved to the top spot and was well in control of the race, holding a comfortable lead on Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay in second. Behind, Rahal still had a chance if something befell the Ice Man, while Montoya worked his way back into the top ten. The Colombian needed to make it up to at least fifth at the finish to win the championship.
Rahal’s chances were finally dashed with six laps to go when he was clipped from behind by KV Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais. Montoya gained one spot from Rahal and then a second when Bourdais lost control prior to being called into the pits to serve an avoidable contact penalty imposed by IndyCar. The incident left Montoya in sixth place, with three seconds to gain on Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Ryan Briscoe in fifth. It would prove to be a gap the Penske pilot could not make up.
When the race was over, Dixon and Montoya ended the season equal in points, however the victory earned Sunday gave the New Zealander three wins to Montoya’s two, securing the title. It is the second time in Verizon IndyCar Series history that the championship has been decided via a tiebreaker. In 2006, Sam Hornish, Jr. and the late Dan Wheldon finished equal on the points table, but Hornish won four races to Wheldon’s two.
The championship is the 11th in major American open wheel racing for Chip Ganassi Racing, combining their seven IndyCar titles with four in the former CART series. The win in Sonoma on Sunday is also the 100th victory for CGR, who made their debut in 1990 after Ganassi had split ties with Pat Patrick Racing to form his own operation.
Behind Dixon in terms of the race itself, Ryan Hunter-Reay held on to finish second putting a bow on a solid finish to the 2015 campaign for the 2014 Indy 500 champion, who earned podium finishes in three of the final four events after earning none in the opening twelve. Dixon’s teammates Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan came home in third and fourth, while Briscoe rounded out the top five, with Montoya right behind him in sixth.
After getting spun out by Bourdais late, Graham Rahal finished 18th.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com during the IndyCar Series offseason for news and information as the circuit prepares for the eagerly anticipated 2016 campaign, which will include the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 next May.