Hunter-Reay dominates to win at Sonoma, Dixon clinches fifth championship

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Ryan Hunter-Reay (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma
Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Ryan Hunter-Reay put on a crushing display to win the season finale of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, the Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway. The American led every single lap of the race, with Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Scott Dixon coming home in second place to claim his fifth IndyCar championship crown.

Entering the race weekend, the fight for the title was down to, essentially, a two-way duel. Scott Dixon held an advantage of twenty-nine points over Alexander Rossi in the standings, with Team Penske‘s Josef Newgarden and Will Power in mathematical contention but completely reliant on exceptional circumstances to take the title.

It did not take long for the championship fight to be all but decided. As the field charged toward turn one, Rossi was caught out by his team-mate Marco Andretti when the #98 driver lifted off of the accelerator on the run into the corner.

Rossi would run into the back of his team-mate and give himself front-wing damage and a right-front puncture. This forced Alexander to crawl around the circuit to get back to the pits and take repairs; with the Californian fortunately able to rejoin the race, but all the way down in last place and a minute off of the race leaders.

For the rest of the race, it was all about staying in the game for Rossi. He spent the first half of the eighty-five lap race distance fighting to stay on the lead lap in the hopes of getting back onto the rear of the pack if a caution came out.

Things were looking great for Dixon and his championship hopes, as he spent basically the entire race running on his own in second place. However, a potential curveball was thrown on lap forty-four when Graham Rahal stopped out on the track and a caution was called.

The caution came at the perfect time for Rossi, who had just made a pit-stop and emerged right in front of his team-mate Hunter-Reay who was a lap ahead and in the lead of the race. The caution allowed Rossi to cycle around and join the back of the pack on the lead lap. He now had just under half of the race to try and make up as many positions as he could and to see if he could still be a factor in the championship.

Alexander Rossi (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

The race restarted on lap fifty and Rossi wasted no time. The #27 driver was on an absolute mission as he moved up from twentieth to fifteenth in one lap. Five laps later, Rossi was up to seventh place as he ruthlessly cut his way through the field; pulling off bold and ballsy overtakes on every lap.

Andretti elected to pull Rossi into the pits early for his final pit-stop of the day, with the team hoping that Alexander could gain some positions on an undercut strategy, whilst also holding out hope for another caution to aid his rise through the field.

Rossi worked his way up to fifth place toward the closing stages of the race, but it appeared as though his pace had plateaued. Despite running in clear air, he was seemingly unable to gain time on the leaders and, crucially, Scott Dixon.

Scott was doing everything he needed to do in his #9 Honda. His pace was on a par with Rossi behind him and with several cars between them, he did not need to worry about a potential last-minute threat for his championship. All he needed to do was make it through the final few laps of the season to secure his crown.

Up at the front, it was an absolutely clinical drive by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Winning the championship-deciding race can be frustrating for a driver if they do not also win the title, as their victory can often be overshadowed by the crowning of the champion.

However, Hunter-Reay’s performance was utterly phenomenal. The American arguably had the strongest ever weekend of his IndyCar career. He set the fastest time of the three practice sessions and went on to top every session of qualifying to take pole position.

From there, Ryan hit overdrive and led every single lap of the race to take his second win of the season and his sixteenth career victory; a result that he would dedicate to Robert Wickens, who released an encouraging update on his medical condition prior to the race. The win also allowed him to leapfrog his way up into fourth place in the standings at the expense of Josef Newgarden.

Ryan Hunter-Reay (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Chris Jones / Courtesy of IndyCar

Coming home just under three seconds off of the race winner was Scott Dixon. The New Zealander ran a quiet race, but it was potentially the most special race of his eighteen year IndyCar career. The result would be enough to secure him his fifth IndyCar championship crown; a magnificent achievement that sees him now tied with A.J. Foyt in the record books.

Will Power put in a sterling performance to go from eighth on the grid to take the final spot on the podium. He also secured third place in the championship standings, with the Australian most likely disappointed to have not come away with the title, but also happy to have had a decent season that saw him claim an emotional win at the Indianapolis 500.

Fourth place would go the way of Power’s Penske team-mate Simon Pagenaud, who finally got a strong 2018 road course race under his belt. The Frenchman may end the season with no victories to his name, but his promising pace at Sonoma may help motivate him during the off-season before the 2019 season begins in March.

Marco Andretti completed the top five in fifth place. It was only Marco’s second top-five finish of the season, with the American putting in a strong drive after escaping from the first corner contact from his team-mate.

Sixth place changed hands on the final lap of the race. Sebastien Bourdais took the position away from Alexander Rossi; who suddenly had to save fuel in order to make it to the chequered flag.

For Rossi, it was undoubtedly a disappointment for his championship bid to end the way it did, but he put in an incredible comeback drive to go from almost a lap down to an eventual seventh-place finish.

Josef Newgarden went from running inside the top-five to a finish of eighth place by the time the race ended. It was a difficult race for the outgoing series champion, who dropped out of contention after stalling in the pit-lane.

IndyCar debutant Patricio O’Ward would culminate his stellar first race weekend with a fantastic ninth place finish for Harding Racing. The Mexican started up in fifth place after an incredible performance in qualifying, but a messy first stint of the race saw the newly-crowned Indy Lights champion slip and slide his way down the field. O’Ward seemed to find his feet as the race wore on, with a ninth-place finish being a fantastic result that will definitely put him on the radar for a full-time ride in 2019.

Patricio O'Ward (MEX), Harding Racing, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Stephen King / Courtesy of IndyCar

On the subject of drivers hoping to secure a seat for next season, Ed Jones rounded out the top ten in the season-finale for Chip Ganassi Racing. The Dubai-born British driver will be hoping that he has done enough to either remain with Ganassi or find his way into another team for next year.

Santino Ferrucci found himself right in the thick of the mid-field chaos. The American took the best finish of his IndyCar career so far in eleventh place, just ahead of Tony Kanaan, who finished his three-hundredth consecutive race in twelfth place. Jordan King was just behind in thirteenth place having come through from a starting position of twenty-fifth and prevailing in a battle with fellow rookie and fourteenth-place finisher Zach Veach.

Further back, Indy Lights graduate Colton Herta failed to make the impression that his Harding team-mate O’Ward had made. Nevertheless, a decent performance saw the American finish as the final driver on the lead lap in twentieth place. The Carlin duo of Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball were numerous laps down, as was Graham Rahal after he rejoined the race following his battery-box issue that brought out the mid-race caution.

Only two drivers were unfortunate to fail to finish the race. Spencer Pigot retired with mechanical issues and was classified in twenty-fourth place, with Takuma Sato taking the last spot on the results table after the engine in his #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda spectacularly failed on lap sixteen.

So after seventeen races, Scott Dixon has been crowned as the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series champion after notching up three race wins, nine podiums and an incredible fifteen top ten finishes with zero race retirements. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver will surely spend the next few weeks celebrating his magnificent fifth title, but he will soon turn his attention toward 2019 and a potential run for a sixth championship.

Be sure to keep an eye out here at The Checkered Flag in the next few days and weeks for all the reaction from this spectacular 2018 season. Don’t worry, there are only one hundred and seventy-four days until the IndyCar Series is back out on track for the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg.

Scott Dixon (NZL), Chip Ganassi Racing, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series – Grand Prix of Sonoma – Race results:

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Reporter from the East of England. Covering the NTT IndyCar Series for The Checkered Flag. Also an eSports racing driver on iRacing.
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