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Sonoma Raceway Provides Perfect Setting to Decide Championship

The stage is set to decide the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship – and it couldn’t be more picturesque.

Sonoma Raceway, with its challenging and undulating 2.385-mile permanent road circuit set against the backdrop of Northern California’s beautiful wine country, plays host this week to the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. And as has been the case for more than a decade in the Verizon IndyCar Series, all the marbles are at stake.

Sonoma is home to the season finale for just the second year in a row, but 2016 marks the 11th straight season that the series champion will be determined in the final race on the schedule. The only known going into race weekend is that a Team Penske driver will come out on top – a fitting tribute to the world-class operation celebrating its 50th anniversary in racing this year.

Simon Pagenaud leads Penske teammate Will Power by 43 points. With the finale paying double race points, Power can still win his second Verizon IndyCar Series championship by finishing in the top five in Sunday’s 85-lap race – depending on how Pagenaud fares.

Power, the 2014 champ, need look no further than a year ago at Sonoma for inspiration. Scott Dixon trailed Juan Pablo Montoya by 47 points heading into the 2015 Sonoma weekend, but won the race while Montoya finished sixth. They both wound up with 556 points but Dixon earned his fourth season crown by virtue of his three race wins during the season to Montoya’s two.

Power can also take solace in the fact that he has three Sonoma wins and has won the pole position (and its important championship point) five times.

“Sonoma has been good to us over the years, but I’m not sure how much that matters,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “Every race has its own circumstances and every team has to make the needed adjustments. It will be an exciting weekend, for sure.”

Pagenaud’s best finish in five Sonoma appearances is third place in 2014 when he was with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Chasing his first series title, the 32-year-old Frenchman has won three times on permanent road courses this season (Barber, Indianapolis GP, Mid-Ohio).

If Pagenaud finishes fourth or better in Sunday’s race, he wins the championship no matter what Power does.

“This is our big season finale and I’m very excited to get to battle it out on the track,” said Pagenaud, driving the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet.

“Now, the job for our HPE Chevy team is a little different than usual, as we are only fighting Will Power. Our season has been incredible. I am so proud of my team and what we have already accomplished with six poles and four wins. Now we want the championship and may the best win.”

The drivers’ championship is not the only title on the line this weekend. Alexander Rossi leads Conor Daly by 75 points in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, but with the double race points, anything can happen. Rossi was plus-104 on Daly in the other double-points race this year, when he won the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The manufacturers’ championship is also undecided. Chevrolet, winner of four straight titles since engine competition resumed in 2012, holds a 71-point lead over Honda heading into the weekend. But with potential bonus points for three Honda cars whose engines could reach their 2,500-mile thresholds during the weekend, the gap could shrink before the race. Also, each supplier only has six cars eligible to earn race points, since INDYCAR rules stipulate that cars using a fifth or later engine during a season may not score points toward the manufacturers’ title.

Practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma begins Friday. Qualifying airs live at 6 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Race coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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