Huston Ladner · Friday September 14, 2012
With one week off after the Baltimore Grand Prix, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns, the last appearance of the season. This race, labeled the MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships at Auto Club Speedway, really comes down to two drivers: Will Power, the points leader, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who trails by 17. The race throws an interesting curve towards all the drivers as the track is one where many do not have much experience. In addition, it’s a high speed oval, one of only three tracks like that on the circuit this year.
The big story is, of course, the championship battle. Apologies to my fellow Frontstretch writer Kevin Rutherford, who intimated that the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa was the best race this weekend, but how can one not choose this one? It’s for the big trophy and the big check. It’s the race that will crown a first-time champion. It’s high drama and it’ll be fast. What’s not to like? Power needs only a fourth place finish to clinch the title no matter where Hunter-Reay finishes. Even if Hunter-Reay takes second, Power will need only a ninth.
Roger Penske began building the two-mile, relatively low-banked, California track on the old Kaiser Steel mill site in 1995, with its first race being held in 1997. The track is currently best known for holding NASCAR races but it does have a history with open-wheeled cars. From 1997 to 2002, the CART Series raced there, and from 2002 to 2005 Indy cars used the track. What that means is that no one is truly the dominant driver at the track, though the oval specialists, like Franchitti or Hunter-Reay are sure to have a bit of an advantage. Adding to the intrigue is that four drivers have already had some issues since testing started this week, they include Scott Dixon, E.J. Viso, Ryan Briscoe – and yes, championship contender Hunter-Reay. In addition, speeds are sure to hold above 200 mph, which means engine reliability will be a key factor. Power has stated that his team will change engines before the race and incur the ten spot grid penalty.
What’s the Points – Drivers:
As mentioned, Power leads Hunter-Reay by seventeen. But there’s an even closer battle for the third position between Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon, who are separated by one point. Think that third spot doesn’t mean anything? Guess again, it’s a $50,000 season-ending bonus gap.
What’s the Points – Engines:
This one was decided two races ago, with Chevrolet taking top honors.
Featured Driver: Mike Conway. Sure, he’s 20th in points and not much of a factor. But his withdrawal from the race – citing his discomfort with racing on high speed ovals – is an interesting one. Since Dan Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the IndyCar Series has been walking a tightrope as to how to address racing on tracks like these. Conway’s move is one that will receive scrutiny but is also one that should be taken on with a bit of understanding.
Our Matt Stallknecht believes that Hunter-Reay takes the race AND the championship, while Toni Montgomery sees Scott Dixon as the race winner with Power finally winning the title. Twice Will Power has gone into the season ending race with a chance to win, and twice Franchitti has bested him. This time, however, Franchitti will help him by winning the race, meaning that Hunter-Reay finishes further back and Power takes the championship in third-times-a-charm fashion.
The off-season. There are sure to be some drivers who change teams, with Hunter-Reay’s name being bandied about, but the silly season seems like it will be a quiet one. The bigger stories will likely be ones involving the car and the tracks. What modifications will be made to the cars? Will push-to-pass return in its current form? As for the schedule, only thirteen races are currently planned. Randy Bernard, the series CEO, has stated that he would like to get that number up to about twenty. Will he be able to do it? Will there be more ovals? All interesting questions.
But for now, it will be time to enjoy the season that was and the crowning of a new champion.
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