RUBENS' GREAT DAY, SPLIT FOR RAHALS – Going into Sonoma, there were plenty of reasons to think Rubens Barrichello would have his best race of the season thanks to two spring tests at the track. Indeed Barrichello followed through, and said the track familiarity was mostly the key to success.
“I kept on saying I've been struggling with some of the tracks this year just because I haven't got the knowledge,” he admitted. “I think that it's more to the fact that it's more familiar with the track more than the car itself.”
Barrichello and Graham Rahal had a great dice in the waning stages and Rahal, officially a free agent, battled the Brazilian strongly rumored to be on the move for next year. Any drive from 13th to fifth at Sonoma is one to be commended.
“I thought overall the racing was good,” Rahal said. “There was almost too much action! Guys were spinning around; there were a lot of wing parts laying around; Barrichello and I hit each other; Marco (Andretti) punted me. There were a couple other things, too – but this new car can take it. In the old days, I would have had two flat tires.”
Unlike Edmonton when both Rahal (fourth) and his dad's team (Takuma Sato in second) finished in the top five, a miserable weekend for Bobby Rahal's squad ended when Sato retired after just two laps with an engine failure. Sato was already resigned to a 10-spot grid penalty for using his sixth engine of the year, and rarely cracked the top 20 on the timesheets.
ON THE NEWGARDEN/BOURDAIS DUSTUP –The first caution, which broke the string of 200-plus green flag laps dating to Edmonton, was a big one, and not easy to watch. Dragon Racing ended a caution-free race at Sonoma last year (Ho-Pin Tung) and did likewise again this year.
Sebastien Bourdais got enough ahead of a then-lapped Josef Newgarden, before his car ran wide through the dust and dirt, went right back across the track and collected the rookie, who had nowhere to go. Bourdais' car struck Newgarden's twice and both were faced with difficult repair prospects in a short time frame before Baltimore next week.
“It was a very bad impact,” Bourdais said on the NBC Sports Network broadcast. “The tub is broken in two, and the gearbox went through my shoulder. It was a really bad hit. It's a shame, I don't know what happened. It didn't turn; it was my mistake. I was on a brand-new set of tires.”
“I talked to Sebastien, and he didn't really know what happened,” Newgarden said. “He just got out of control – maybe he hit the gas to correct it – and it was just one of those deals where it was completely the wrong place and I got collected.
“When he went off, he almost straight-lined it and then came back across. He tried to turn in but it shot left, and I was there.
“It all happened so fast. He just lost control. At that point I was headed for the barriers and couldn't get hands off the wheel.”
Fortunately, the only injury was Newgarden's left index finger, which he had re-evaluated in Indianapolis on Monday. In a coincidence, it marked the third straight race a green Angie's List sponsored Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car (Tomas Scheckter Las Vegas 2011, Bryan Clauson Indianapolis 2012) was involved in an accident – Newgarden estimated he and the car will be back, repaired, in a blue and black livery next weekend.
SAAVEDRA'S IMPRESSIVE WEEKEND – Much like Giorgio Pantano at Mid-Ohio, the end result for one-off driver Sebastian Saavedra doesn't look particularly impressive (23rd to 15th, almost a mirror image of Pantano's 24th to 14th), but dig deeper and you'll find Saavedra was one of the unheralded stars of the weekend.
In the fourth Andretti Autosport entry, jointly fielded by AFS Racing, Saavedra was able to test at Sonoma a week ago but only had two sets of tires available to use per a rule limiting the number for partial season drivers. In his first road course race in the DW12, Saavedra finished a respectable 10th and 15th in the two practice sessions before just missing out on advancing out of his group in Q1. He had a 10-spot grid penalty leftover from an engine change after Indianapolis, so started 23rd.
But in the race, he made a number of good passing moves, stayed largely clean except for being penalized for a pit lane speed infraction and generally did the things he would need to do in an audition role for a full-season return to the series in 2013.
Saavedra actually ended best of the Andretti quartet – James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti each had mechanical issues and RHR had his troubles at the end of the race. A day to forget for the squad before team boss Michael Andretti's second stab at solo race promotion this year, next week at Baltimore.
OF NOTE – Former Champ Car teammates Power and Simon Pagenaud completed formalities, officially, on Sunday. Power took the Mario Andretti road course championship for the third time in as many seasons, while Pagenaud secured Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Neither realistically appeared in doubt from the start of the year. Chevrolet also confirmed the manufacturer's title, with its ninth win from 13 races this season.
With third, Dario Franchitti recorded only his third podium finish of the season – and, in a statistical oddity, his first in the No. 10 Target car. His win at Indy came with the No. 50 and second at Detroit came in a black No. 10 with Suave for Men signage.
The top six in qualifying (Power, Briscoe, Bourdais, Castroneves, Dixon and Franchitti) matched the top six in Sonoma's 2011 race, albeit not in the same order. Bourdais for Dragon Racing was the only non-Penske/Ganassi representative, where for the first time this season five of six Firestone Fast 6 participants were from the Penske and Ganassi stables.
With eighth place, JR Hildebrand very quietly confirmed his third top-10 finish in the last four races and is just outside the top-10 in the championship in 11th. Hildebrand featured prominently this week in his special San Francisco 49ers themed livery and firesuit.
In his return after missing Mid-Ohio, Charlie Kimball had two incidents in practice and qualifying but again ran solidly in the race, on the fringe of another top-10 in 11th before late race gearbox issues resigned the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver to 21st.
Ed Carpenter is now 13-for-13 in finishing races this season for Ed Carpenter Racing – although he's only twice finished higher than 18th on road and street course races.
The series heads to the streets of Baltimore next weekend.