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Friday, August 20, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma

Will Power may have already clinched the Mario Andretti Trophy as the best road course driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year, but he'll have plenty of unfinished business when he takes to the Infineon Raceway for this weekend's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Power's season ended here prematurely last year when a freak accident with Nelson Philippe landed him on the sidelines with two fractured vertebrae in his back. By now, most IndyCar fans know the story: originally a temp replacement at Team Penske while Helio Castroneves' legal issues were sorted out, owner Roger Penske found the money to run Power in a handful of other events last year, and his performance was stellar until the Sonoma incident.

Regardless, Penske took a chance on the Australian full-time this year, shutting down his sports car operation to make room, and Power rewarded the veteran owner by winning his first two races back this season. He has taken four of the eight road course races run thus far this year, and he hasn't finished any worse than fourth running on the twisties.

But just because he has the road course championship in hand, and a solid 41-point advantage in the overall standings, doesn't mean that a Power victory lap at Sonoma is a certainty. It's especially not the case when his top rival in all categories, 2009 series champion Dario Franchitti, led every lap to win from the pole here last year.

Franchitti got the best of Power during Friday practice, as the series' top two drivers were 1-2 atop the speed charts. 16 drivers posted laps within a second of Franchitti's best, a 78.297-second circuit. Alex Tagliani, Franchitti teammate Scott Dixon, and Justin Wilson completed the top five in that session.

J.R. Hildebrand, in 13th with a lap of 79.039 seconds, was the top rookie in the session. Wilson's teammate at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, and a California native who calls Infineon his home track, Hildebrand will attempt to top the injured Mike Conway's third-place finish in this race last year. He had nearly half a second on Bertrand Baguette, the second-best rookie.

In all, 23 of the 25 drivers attempting the race were within two seconds of Franchitti's best lap. The lone two exceptions were Francesco Dracone, making only his second career IndyCar start with Conquest Racing, and Milka Duno, who has been consistently off the pace all year with Dale Coyne Racing. The buzz around Duno gets stronger every week, with more and more fans calling for the IRL powers that be to park her. Last year, Duno had her second best finish of the season at Infineon, placing 17th.

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