Grand Prix of Sonoma County
by Esteban Morales
August 24, 2008
After a near win in Kentucky Team Penske’s biggest hurdle was strategizing how to catch Scott Dixon in the points battle with only three events left on the calendar. A few days before the Grand Prix of Sonoma County was underway, Team Penske temporarily put the points race on hold after one of its transporters, carrying the team’s primary cars, was destroyed in a fire caused by a wheel bearing. Instead of skipping the race or languishing in the back of the grid Team Penske responded by qualifying on the front row with Helio Castroneves on pole and Ryan Briscoe on the outside. Castroneves made the most of his starting position by earning his first win of the season amidst a flurry of pit strategies.
While Castroneves led into the opening turn, championship leader Scott Dixon drove a cautious race after qualifying in fifth. Before the race Dixon made it clear that he was disappointed with his qualifying run, “The car was fairly decent, and then on that last qualifying run…every time I tried to touch the brakes I was locking them up.” Dixon planned on driving a conservative race and continued in fifth until Marty Roth spun and stalled his car, bringing out the first yellow of the event.
Castroneves, Dixon and Marco Andretti used the caution to make their first stops of the afternoon. Castroneves’s teammate, Briscoe, inherited the lead ahead of Tony Kanaan and dominated after the yellow until he and Kanaan pitted on lap 27. Rookie E.J. Viso, who was the first to pit out of sequence on lap 12 emerged in the lead with Dan Wheldon second and Mario Dominguez third. Meanwhile Castroneves patiently waited for off-sequence drivers to drop into pit lane and carved his way back through the pack. By lap 34 Castroneves was back in the top five. Two laps later he became the leader when the top three cars made their pit stops; Briscoe and Dixon emerged in second and third, respectively. Castroneves comfortably led through the halfway point of the race before making a scheduled pit stop and handing the lead back over to his teammate on lap 44. Dixon followed Castroneves into the pits on the same lap but lost crucial track position while exiting. Whereas Castroneves rejoined the race in the third, Dixon caught traffic and dropped to fifteenth.
Castroneves kept his eye on Briscoe and Kanaan and pressured Kanaan for several laps. As soon as the leaders made their final stop Castroneves set his fastest lap of the race and built a cushion to keep Briscoe at bay. Castroneves strategically made his final stop of the event on lap 57, just 13 laps after his previous stop. The strategy paid off and Castroneves kept his Dallara ahead of Briscoe’s. Deep in the pack, Dixon was mired in the fourteenth position after his final stop. Castroneves ran uncontested for the remainder of the race and made his first trip to Victory Lane this season. Castroneves, pleased to finally break down the door to victory lane, celebrated with fans in the grandstands; “people kept telling me that the door would finally open, and today we broke through it.” Dixon finished a distant twelfth and still holds a strong points lead over Castroneves, however, the swing in momentum has whittled Dixon’s lead down by 35 points to 43 and has kept Castroneves’s title aspirations alive.