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Wild Ride Toward IndyCar Championship Continues At New-Look Sonoma

Driving a high-speed Indy car around the scenic Sonoma Raceway road course, with its dramatic elevation changes, has been called the IZOD IndyCar Series version of a roller coaster ride.

The same can be said about the battle for the 2012 series title.

With three races remaining in the season, the top four drivers are separated by just 28 points. The top seven drivers are spread by just 72 points. Even four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti is mathematically alive at 108 points out, in eighth place, with Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe four points behind him in ninth heading into the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sunday.

Team Penske driver Will Power is the championship leader by just five points over Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. Another Team Penske driver, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, is third, 26 points out. Two-time IndyCar champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon is 28 points back after winning at Mid-Ohio in the most recent IndyCar contest.

Some dramatic changes were made to this historic race course in an effort to create more passing opportunities in what is now a 2.31-mile layout. Because of that, all IZOD IndyCar Series teams will be permitted to participate in the opening practice session Friday at Sonoma, and teams will be given a ninth set of tires that can be used in the 75-minute session.

Officials with the Sonoma Raceway and INDYCAR announced the changes earlier this month, including:

•The entrance into Turn 11 will be extended by 200 feet before drivers encounter the hairpin. This will give drivers more space to out-brake each other and set up a passing opportunity before the right-hander into Turn 12. The geometry of the modified Turn 11 will mirror the shorter turn used for INDYCAR in previous years.

•The exit of Turn 9 (aka the “Bus Stop”) will be widened by 10 feet on drivers' left, giving competitors additional width in what was already a passing zone. The exit of the turn will now be 50 feet wide.

•At Turn 7, instead of the looping right-hander, drivers will now encounter a U-turn. The new turn will force drivers to out-brake each other, similar to Turn 11, and create a passing zone. Previously, drivers could maintain speed as they made the looping right-hander.

IZOD IndyCar Series drivers got a chance to test the new layout Aug. 17.

“I have to give big credit to the track because yesterday myself and Ryan Hunter-Reay were out there playing with the rental car and making adjustments to Turn 11 trying to make it suit everyone, but, as you know, race car drivers are very difficult to get to agree on anything,” Castroneves said. “Right now, without a lot of laps out there, I think it came out really well. Big credit to the track for making it happen. It just shows it can be done when you ask for it, if there are people who want to make it happen. I think the track is great, and the changes seem to create a lot more passing, but remember the tires are going to go away and that’s where things are going to get very interesting. I think it’s going to be quite exciting.

“Right now, I think the basics are pretty good, and we just need to finish some small details. Good job to the entire race track because it’s the first time I’ve seen somebody make it happen like this.”

In addition to battling the rest of the IndyCar field for this year’s championship, Castroneves is chasing teammate Power for the lead and is in great shape to continue the fight over the final three races of the season.

Power was one of the drivers that Sonoma Raceway officials consulted on making modifications to the race course.

“Turn 7 is going to be better passing, just the fact that it’s deeper and harder braking and a much wider entry,” Power said. “That was a good change. Turn 9 is just about the same corner it was, maybe a bit faster, and it might set you up for passing into Turn 11. In terms of Turn 11, the exit curbs in Turn 11 are an issue. I think they’re going to take them out. All in all, good changes. This new car is really quick around here. My neck is really sore. I think it’s going to be good racing. Everywhere we’ve been where we’ve expected little passing, there’s been a lot. I think there’s going to be good racing here. Fans are in for a treat.”

Last year all three Team Penske drivers swept the podium – the first time the team scored a 1-2-3 sweep since 1994 and the second time the storied team has put multiple drivers on the podium at Sonoma. In 2011, Power won the race with Castroneves second and Briscoe third.

Power is going for his third straight Sonoma victory this weekend.

In 13 races overall, Team Penske drivers have combined for three race victories from the pole (Castroneves in 2008, Power in 2010 and 2011), eight podiums and 11 top-five finishes at Sonoma. Power has led 144 of 150 laps in the last two Sonoma contests.

Expect Castroneves to put some pressure on championship front-runner Power this weekend. Castroneves has not started lower than fourth in his seven career races at Sonoma and has finished in the top-five in all five of the races where he was running at the finish with a win in 2008 and second-place finishes in 2007 and 2011.

“It should be a great race this weekend at Sonoma,” Castroneves said. “I’m glad we got to practice on the new track; I believe the changes will be a benefit for the drivers and make it even more exciting for the fans. I can't wait to get back on the track this weekend and hopefully we can repeat the good luck from before to get into victory lane.”

In-between the two Team Penske drivers is Hunter-Reay, just five points out of the lead. Although he experienced an engine issue at Mid-Ohio that saw him fail to finish the race, Hunter-Reay is confident in his effort after last week’s test.

"Our Sonoma test was a productive one, and we've found a direction, but we still have a lot of work to do over the race weekend if we are going to contend for a win,” he said. “I believe, with our strong three-car team, that we can come back and improve through each practice session leading into qualifying. We're focused on nothing else. With the new track layout, we may see more passing - which is much needed at Sonoma. Plus, the race is 10 laps longer this year, so it makes it almost a certain three-stop race. You'll have most of the field pushing 100 percent for the entire race rather than saving fuel. As drivers, we prefer it that way, and we'll have loads of support from a huge turnout of Andretti Autosport partners, supporters and sponsors."

Dixon may be the hottest driver in the series at the moment. It appears he has regained his championship stride after his impressive victory Aug. 5 at Mid-Ohio. It was his 29th career IndyCar win, which tied him with legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears for 10th on the all-time victory list.

Hinchcliffe would also like a chance to get back into the points race as he is fifth in the standings but has quite a bit of ground to make up in order to put pressure on the four drivers in front of him.

“I'm really glad we got to test because with this new car and the new track layout there was a lot to learn,” Hinchcliffe said. “The test certainly didn't go super-smooth for us, but one of the Team Go Daddy strengths this year has been fighting through tough situations. And with only three races left and so many drivers still in contention, we need to fight.

“The new layout is interesting. It might create some more passing, but likely due to drivers making mistakes based on what we saw at the test. There are some tough corners because at the end of the day, Indy cars aren't built to drive around 30 miles-per-hour hairpins. But the extended distance (the race distance has been increased from 75 laps to 85 laps) should really let us race hard and be flat out all day, which will also make this race very physical.”

JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing is 14th in points and realizes he is out of the fight for the title, but the driver has some hometown pride. He grew up in Sausalito, Calif., across the bay from San Francisco. This weekend, his No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara/Chevrolet will be painted in the colors of his favorite NFL team – the San Francisco 49ers.

The team’s head coach is former Panther Racing co-owner Jim Harbaugh, who nearly led the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl in 1995 when he was the quarterback of the team, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship.

“I'm really stoked about the weekend,” Hildebrand said. “We tested last Friday in the National Guard Chevy and had a really productive day after a strong race weekend in Mid-Ohio. The track changes at Sonoma this year should really help create more passing opportunities. They adjusted two places where passing hadn't been an option previously, and now I think both turns will be places you can be successful in our passing attempts. And obviously the deal we're doing with the 49ers is really cool, and I'm excited to go to the 49ers’ facility on Thursday and see Jim Harbaugh again. Meeting him last year it was pretty cool to see how much he knows about IndyCar racing and that he was totally up to speed on what was going on at Panther."

Andretti Autosport will have an extra car in the lineup as Sebastian Saavedra will drive the No. 17 AFS Racing Dallara/Chevrolet in his second IZOD IndyCar Series appearance in 2012.

So these drivers will have to strap in tight for one of the greatest roller-coasters rides on earth – an IZOD IndyCar Series race at Sonoma Raceway. And this is more than just a thrill show ride because it will have a major impact on the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.

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