NASCAR & Auto Racing

After tragedy, IndyCar drivers focus on title at Sonoma

Video: IndyCar stars come to Sacramento

At the State Capitol, IndyCar drivers reflect on death of driver Justin Wilson and the 2015 season finale at Sonoma Raceway. Video by Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Bee.
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At the State Capitol, IndyCar drivers reflect on death of driver Justin Wilson and the 2015 season finale at Sonoma Raceway. Video by Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Bee.

For IndyCar drivers, the best way to cope with tragedy is to do what they love most: Go race.

Still in shock over Monday’s death of driver Justin Wilson, IndyCar’s stars rolled into Sacramento on Wednesday afternoon for a pit stop at the Capitol before heading to Sonoma Raceway for Sunday’s season finale.

“We’ll definitely race with heavy hearts this weekend,” said driver Scott Dixon, Sonoma’s defending champion. “But there’s still a championship battle to be won. Knowing Justin, he’d definitely want us to go out there and compete.”

This Capitol visit was supposed to be a lighthearted preliminary to Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. The series’ top six drivers and Sonoma track president Steve Page accepted a resolution from state Sen. Jim Nielsen and posed with the championship trophy.

But the drivers’ thoughts often returned to Wilson, who succumbed to head injuries suffered in the season’s penultimate race at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway.

“Justin was the nicest guy you’d ever meet,” Dixon said. “Also, he was a fierce and fair competitor on the track. It’s a horrible loss, no doubt about it. But Justin was doing what he loved; he was a racer.”

It’s a horrible loss, no doubt about it. But Justin was doing what he loved; he was a racer.

Scott Dixon, IndyCar driver

Considered among the safest tracks on IndyCar’s circuit, Sonoma Raceway is working on a commemoration of Wilson during IndyCar weekend including T-shirts and stickers honoring the popular driver. Any proceeds will benefit Wilson’s two daughters, Jane, 7, and Jessica, 5.

There’s a therapeutic benefit to racing so soon after Wilson’s death, Dixon said.

“All times are tough; it doesn’t make (acceptance of) Justin’s death any easier,” he said. “But when you’re in the car, you switch off. You’re focusing on just how to get through the next corner quicker, running strategy through your head. You’re fully focused on racing.”

Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya leads the point standings as he has all season. But another five drivers remain in mathematical contention for the series title: Graham Rahal, Dixon, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden.

34 Points that Juan Pablo Montoya leads Graham Rahal in the IndyCar driver standings

“There’s a lot of pressure on them; they need to have an outstanding weekend to have a chance,” said Montoya, who switched back to IndyCar racing last year after seven seasons in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was to win the Indy 500. What we did after that was a bonus.”

Rahal, 34 points behind Montoya in second place, has the best shot to overtake the leader for the title.

“For us, it’s been a phenomenal year,” Rahal said. “Whatever happens, we’re excited.”

All the drivers love Sonoma, Castroneves said.

“Sonoma is such a phenomenal track,” he said. “Nobody complains about coming here, including the wives, kids and friends. People come to this place not only to watch us race but to have a great time.”

For the first time, Sonoma will be the season finale and decide the title. Power, the 2014 series champion and three-time Sonoma winner, loves it.

“It’s definitely my favorite track on the whole circuit,” Power said. “With double points for this race, anything can happen. It’s certainly interesting from the fans’ perspective. Who knows how it will all play out?”

At the State Capitol, IndyCar drivers reflect on death of driver Justin Wilson and the 2015 season finale at Sonoma Raceway. Video by Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Bee.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

IndyCar GoPro Grand Prix

Where: Sonoma Raceway

When: Friday practice, 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, practice, 10:45 a.m., qualifying, 3:05 p.m.; Sunday, final practice, 10 a.m., race, 2 p.m.

TV: Saturday, 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., NBCSN; Sunday, 1 p.m., NBCSN

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