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Drivers looking for smooth road

Castroneves, Andretti and others hope to turn season around on Sonoma course.

August 23, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, Calif. -- Several IndyCar Series drivers hope their trip to California wine country this weekend will improve seasons that have trailed their expectations.

They include two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who has been consistently strong but is still looking for his first win of 2008; Marco Andretti, in a two-year winless drought, and several former Champ Car World Series drivers who have struggled after migrating to the IndyCar Series this season.

The Champ Car drivers, in particular, are looking to rebound Sunday at the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County because it's being held at Infineon Raceway, a curvy road course that was typical of the layouts used on the Champ Car circuit.

"I think we have got what it takes to be on the [top-three] podium this weekend if luck goes our way," said Will Power, a former Champ Car driver who won this year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the city's seaside street course.

And Power, along with Castroneves and his Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe, were among the fastest drivers in practice Friday.

But the odds-on favorite is Scott Dixon, who has won six times this year -- including the Indy 500 -- and is poised to capture his second title for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

The New Zealand native also is the defending winner at Infineon, where the drivers navigate a 12-turn, 2.25-mile course for 80 laps. Qualifying is today to set the race's 27-car starting grid.

Dixon holds a 78-point lead in the title standings over Castroneves with three races left. "I know I'm comfortable on a road course, but the bad news is he's [Dixon] also very comfortable on the road course," said Castroneves, who hasn't had a winless season since 1999.

Two other former series champions, Dixon teammate Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing, are a distant 138 points and 147 points behind Dixon, respectively. Kanaan also won at Infineon in 2005.

Andretti, Kanaan's teammate, scored his only IndyCar win at Infineon in 2006, when he was a 19-year-old rookie. But the son of former IndyCar driver Michael Andretti and grandson of former Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti hasn't seen Victory Lane since then.

At the time, Marco was the youngest driver ever to win a series event, but that record was broken in April by Graham Rahal, son of another former Indy 500 winner, Bobby Rahal.

Rahal, also 19, won his first series race on a street course in St. Petersburg, Fla., for Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing, which had dominated Champ Car in its final years with Sebastien Bourdais.

But Rahal hasn't finished in the top five since his win and has finished outside the top 10 in his last four races.

His teammate, Justin Wilson, is another former Champ Car driver who has struggled to stay up front after joining the IndyCar Series, particularly on the oval tracks that are the backbone of the series.

"We didn't expect it to be easy, but it's been tough," Wilson said. The adjustment also has been difficult psychologically, he said.

"That's the hardest part, being used to running up in front and challenging for wins [and] finishing on the podium quite often, to now having one podium" this season, Wilson said. "You just keep picking yourself up and moving on."

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The quick practice speeds posted by Castroneves and Briscoe demonstrated that they're unlikely to be at a disadvantage despite a fire that destroyed their primary cars.

Both were forced to drive backup cars after the truck carrying their main cars had a wheel-bearing failure that caused it to catch fire on Interstate 80 early Wednesday near Cheyenne, Wyo.

Team President Tim Cindric estimated the loss of the cars, the truck van and other equipment at more than $1 million, and said the team had to work feverishly to get the backup cars race-ready.

"If there is a team that knows how to rebound, it's Team Penske," Castroneves said. "To be honest, if they didn't say [it was a backup car] or didn't talk about that, I wouldn't notice anything different. We're going to try to put this behind us."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA

Where: Infineon Raceway

Qualifying: Today, 1:15 p.m.

Race: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.,

ESPN2

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