The Frontstretch: Championship Done The Old-Fashioned Way by Toni Montgomery -- Wednesday October 16, 2013

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Championship Done The Old-Fashioned Way

Toni Montgomery · Wednesday October 16, 2013

 

This Saturday night, it will once again come down to the final race of the season, a grueling 500-miler at Auto Club Speedway, to decide the championship for the IZOD IndyCar Series. If it seems like we’re always saying that, year after year, it’s pretty much because we are. 2013 marks the eighth consecutive year the title has come down to the final race of the season.

If you are a fan of statistics, history, and scenarios, hang on to your hat because this column is going to be a lot of fun! The title contenders are two longtime series veterans. We’ve got Scott Dixon, the current points leader, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing while Helio Castroneves, trailing by 25 points, is driving for Roger Penske.

If this scenario looks familiar, that’s because it is. Dixon was leading by 30 points going into the final race of the season in 2008, with Helio Castroneves doing all he could to reel him in. Castroneves won that final race, but Dixon finished runner-up and held on to win the championship by 17 points.

Scott Dixon leads Helio Castroneves in the standings heading into the final race of the year.

It was Dixon’s second title, his first coming in 2003. There was a margin of five years between Dixon’s first championship, in ’03 and his second in ’08. It’s been five years since the last… so is he due again?

2008 was also the last time the driver leading the points entering the final race held on to be the series champion. Dixon was leading once again going into the final race of 2009, but lost the championship to his teammate Dario Franchitti. That was the last time Dixon was also the IndyCar Series points leader; that is, prior to taking the lead exiting Houston last week. Overall, when leading the points entering the final race, Scott Dixon holds a 2-1 career record so far.

For Roger Penske, the view is also sort of familiar. He was the owner of the car Castroneves was driving in 2008. While he was not a player in that ’09 battle, his other driver, Will Power, was the man leading in 2010, ’11, and ’12, only to come up short in the final race, twice to Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti and once to Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. The last championship for the Captain was way back in 2006, with Sam Hornish, Jr. just before the driver started shifting attention to NASCAR. You can bet he’s tired of being a bridesmaid…

Sometimes, there is something to be said about being the pursuer instead of the defender. In terms of pressure, there is often a sentiment that it is more difficult and worrisome to think about holding someone off than it is to think about catching them, a philosophy taken on by Helio Castroneves leading in to this event.

“At this point, I feel that I have nothing to lose, so there is no pressure, to be honest,” said the driver this week. “You have to just go for it. We’re going to look for our best result, try to replicate what we did in Texas and hopefully, we’ll be successful.”

Castroneves has a certain point. He’s already not the champion so he can’t lose what he doesn’t have. He can hang it all out there and what happens, happens. Dixon can try to win, and the points will take care of themselves if he does, but he also has to be concerned as if he gets too aggressive, he and his Ganassi team could beat themselves.

It is, however, Scott Dixon we’re talking about. He’s the Iceman of open-wheel racing and if there is one driver pressure doesn’t seem to get to, it’s him. He’s also not taking anything for granted. It would be foolish to underestimate the competition, especially when that competition is Penske Racing.

“Every year we compete, we try to win the championship, and I think definitely over the last five or six years we’ve had a good shot sort of going into the last one each of those years,” said Dixon. “It’s a good situation for us to be in and one that we’ll dig deep and try and carry out, but obviously, with the competition against Penske and Helio, a very accomplished team and a very accomplished driver, it’s not going to be easy at all.”

Surely, the feeling is mutual there. These are two very established, very accomplished, and very strong teams, the behemoths fighting at the top seemingly every season. It’s of interest to note that each team will also have a slight wild card in their mix this weekend, too. With Franchitti out, recovering from injuries suffered in Houston, Alex Tagliani will be subbing in the No. 10 Target car. Tagliani is a veteran, and regular teammate Charlie Kimball will also be there. But will having a different driver in the mix change team chemistry… and will that even matter to Dixon?

Team Penske will also be mixing things up a little, running a third car this week for AJ Allmendinger. It’s something the team has done on an handful of occasions this year, notably with impressive results in the Indianapolis 500. Team owner Roger Penske says he added Allmendinger to the lineup because of that strong oval run in an effort to end the season on the best possible note.

And what of Auto Club Speedway itself and the MAVTV 500? Does this race, this track favor one championship contender over the other? Helio Castroneves has raced there nine times, with best finishes of fifth in 2002 and ’12. Scott Dixon has six starts and a best finish of second in 2003. He was third in last year’s event.

Clearly, Castroneves is the better oval racer, with Dixon preferring road/street courses, right? Not so fast. Castroneves has 16 wins on ovals, four of those on superspeedways. Scott Dixon has 18 oval wins, with two of his on superspeedways.

So what do all these numbers mean for Saturday night? It means you should probably tune in to find out how this rivalry turns out because there’s no clear favorite. Give the edge to Dixon, because he has a 25-point cushion and because he’s seemingly impervious to pressure. But over 500, high-speed miles in Fontana, anything can happen.

Worth Noting

Chevrolet and Honda will also battle it out for a championship in Fontana. The two entered Houston in a tie for the manufacturer’s title, each one looking to clinch before the finale. Well, Honda took race one while Chevrolet prevailed in race two, meaning they exited Houston still in a tie with nine wins apiece on the season. This hard-fought competition will also now be decided on Saturday night.

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