The 2016 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma was the last chance for IndyCar drivers to impress before the offseason. Which free agents improved their stock, and who didn’t?
Sunday’s 2016 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma may have been the last chapter in the current stories of several IndyCar drivers, as many big names have contracts that expire this year. The league’s free agent market could be its most interesting in a long time, which made Sonoma all the more important for those without a plan for 2017.
A strong result in the season’s final race could leave a good impression as they look to keep their seat with their current team, or perhaps sign a big contract with a new one. Or for those struggling with prospects a difficult finish just adds one more bump in the road.
Either way there were many drivers with something on the table at Sonoma and several of them changed their prospects with the final scorecard of 2016.
Here’s how we think things look for some of IndyCar’s more notable free agents after Sunday:
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Juan Pablo Montoya: What retirement talk? Montoya ended a bad season well on Sunday, finishing on the podium. But it wasn’t just where he wound up; he had a consistently strong drive, qualifying fourth and running up front for most of the 85 laps. While he may be the odd man out if Team Penske doesn’t run four cars next season, Montoya’s Sonoma drive showed he still has plenty to give, either on his own or even as a veteran presence to help bring along a younger driver at another team.
Josef Newgarden: The market’s top free agent by a mile, Newgarden added an exclamation point to his argument for a big-team spot at Sonoma. He was the highest finishing Chevrolet driver not from the powerhouse of Penske (which is his rumored landing spot). Coming in sixth in the race also made him fourth in the championship, which is his best career result. He can basically write his own check at this point.
Alexander Rossi: Everyone is waiting to see whether Rossi will stay in IndyCar or go back to Formula One next year, and while the California native’s heart seems as if it leans toward Europe (he’s still an F1 reserve driver, though he did turn down Manor’s race seat), he capped his first stateside open-wheel year with a Top 5. That made Rossi the 2016 Rookie of the Year, aside from his winning the Indianapolis 500 in May. If he can be persuaded to stay the course, Rossi should have a bright future at Andretti…or any other team that might make a play for his services.
Tony Kanaan: The Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s day at Sonoma started badly when he made Lap 1 contact with Mikhail Aleshin. But Kanaan drove his tail off in order to claw back to his 13th place starting position, which is an impressive display of fortitude. He didn’t have a fantastic result in the last race but he avoided having a disastrous one, and that’s the best he could ask for. Hopefully he’ll be back in the No. 10 car next year but like Montoya, he’s not done.
Carlos Munoz: This isn’t what we wanted to be saying, but things look even tougher for Munoz after Sonoma. He qualified 16th and finished 15th, putting him in the back third of the field while he’s trying to round up sponsorship to stay in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport car for another year. With as tough as it has been for him to find that valuable financial support, a strong result at Sonoma would’ve gone a long way toward convincing someone to dig into their pockets. But it wound up being a missed opportunity.
Jack Hawksworth: All the whispers around the paddock say that A.J. Foyt Enterprises may be looking to replace both its drivers for 2017, and Hawksworth’s 18th place finish at Sonoma ended his season with a thud. It was his worst result since Mid-Ohio and made him 20th in the IndyCar championship, which is his worst overall finish in three years within the league. 2016 was also the first year in which the Englishman didn’t have at least one Top 10 all season. So if Foyt is indeed re-evaluating its lineup, Hawksworth didn’t make a great case to be retained at Sonoma.
The IndyCar offseason has barely begun, so it will likely be a while before we know where (or if) all the 2016 free agents will be racing in 2017. There are a lot of factors to consider when drivers are navigating the business aspect of the league. But several of them were able to finish strong on Sunday, and hopefully that will help them as they look forward to the future.
Where do you think your favorite driver will be racing in the 2017 IndyCar season?