Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma
August 27, 2006
Marco Andretti captured the attention of millions by coming within a car length of winning his first Indianapolis 500 earlier this May. He added an exclamation point by taking the checkered flags at the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma and becoming the youngest winner in IndyCar history at only nineteen. Marco added his name to a list of openwheel victors including Mario, Michael and John Andretti whilst also clinching Rookie of the Year honors. After contending for the race win at Watkins Glen it was no surprise that Andretti earned his first victory on a road course. Andretti showed serious speed in qualifying and split championship contenders Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves who qualified first and third respectively.
Before Andretti stole the spotlight the first half of the afternoon was all Dixon; the New Zealander quickly opened a three-second lead in the first ten laps and looked unbeatable for most of the event. Andretti closed in on Dixon with the help of a lap 11 yellow for contact between Jeff Bucknum and Jeff Simmons. At the restart Dixon eased away from the rest of the field. Unable to catch Dixon, championship contender Sam Hornish Jr. simply looked lost on the twisty 2.22-mile road course while Castroneves and Dan Wheldon struggled to keep up. After driving away to a four-second lead, Dixon made his first pit stop at the end of lap 28 with Andretti and the rest of the leaders in tow. On an alternate fuel strategy, Wheldon inherited the lead of the race for a number of laps before diving into the pits on lap 39.
By then Dixon built a near insurmountable eleven-second lead; to his dismay it evaporated on lap 44 after a second yellow for turn 11 contact between Buddy Rice and Kosuke Matsuura. Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Wheldon took the opportunity to pit under yellow while Dixon, Castroneves and Dario Franchitti stayed out. The green flew momentarily but was replaced with a yellow for debris two laps later on lap 50. Unbeknownst to Dixon, this would be the deciding point in the race. Dixon was literally let down by a faulty jack that would not allow his crew to attach the left front tire to the car. With a combination of luck and strategy Andretti took over the lead of the race and never looked back amidst fuel consumption concerns.
With a clear racetrack in front of him Andretti pulled away from second place Tony Kanaan. On lap 72 Franchitti took over second from Kanaan and began to close on Andretti just before a final yellow flew with seven laps remaining. Andretti held his composure through the most important restart of his life and built a considerable cushion on his way to the green flag. Andretti controlled the last few laps of the race while father Michael Andretti gnawed his fingernails away. Andretti crossed the line less than a second ahead of Franchitti with Vitor Meira further back in third. Castroneves took over the points lead with a fifth place finish. The Brazilian heads to the final round at Chicagoland Speedway with a meager one point advantage. Andretti stole the spotlight in Sonoma but Castroneves and Hornish will surely hog the headlines in Chicago as the closest IRL title hunt unfolds.