SONOMA — A good day for Team Penske isn’t all that unusual at Sonoma raceway, given the team’s three victories coming into Sunday’s GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.
But No. 4 was something that couldn’t have been scripted.
Ryan Briscoe beat teammate Will Power, but Power was the one who left Sonoma with the IndyCar season championship squarely in his sights after a wild sequence of events late in the race severely damaged Ryan Hunter-Reay’s title hopes.
Power, who had won the past two races at Sonoma and the last three poles, stretched his five-point championship lead over Hunter-Reay entering the weekend to 36 points with only two events left: Sunday’s street race in Baltimore (which he won last year) and the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Sept. 15.
Even so, Power would have been happier had he won this race, especially after leading 57 of the 85 laps.
“I can’t help but be a little disappointed, but happy because I got a good points buffer,” Power said.
Power dominated the first three quarters of a mostly uneventful race, with Briscoe in second place most of the way.
Then the race — and perhaps the championship — was determined during the most dramatic period of the day.
Power pitted on Lap 65, but his crew had trouble getting on his right rear tire. He rejoined the race in second place behind Briscoe.
On the next lap, Sebastien Bourdais, who had just pitted and was running a strong third, lost control and ran wide into the dirt in Turn 9. He slid back onto the track and took out rookie Josef Newgarden, bringing out the first caution in IndyCar since the Toronto race in early July.
Under caution, Briscoe was able to pit and keep the lead when Power got caught behind traffic that was slower than usual, even by yellow-flag standards.
On the double-file restart on Lap 74, Briscoe held his lead over Power. But in Turn 7, Hunter-Reay, who had moved up to third, was spun from behind by Alex Tagliani, bringing out another caution and putting Hunter-Reay a lap down.
On the next restart, Hunter-Reay made avoidable contact with E.J. Viso and was hit with a drive-through penalty.
That doomed Hunter-Reay to an 18th-place finish, rather than a spot on the podium. After the race, he was seen having an animated conversation in the pits with Tagliani.
“It was the usual Tag,” Hunter-Reay said. “He just got in there, locked up the brakes and got into the back of me. I can’t tell you how frustrated I am after the engine problems (last race at Mid-Ohio), and then this. We had a podium. I can’t get over it right now. It’s unreal.”
Meanwhile, Briscoe cruised home with his first victory since June 2010 at Texas Motor Speedway. In his past five races at Sonoma, he has finished second, second, fourth, third and finally, first.
“It’s great to get the win,” Briscoe said. “You get into a slump, you think, ‘Man, am I ever going to win again?’ So this is definitely lifting, a confidence builder.