FONTANA, Calif. – When it comes to determining the IZOD IndyCar Series champion, who needs a Chase?
For the seventh-straight year the series championship has come down to the final race of the season without being aided by a contrived championship format such as NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship.”
Although there are four drivers mathematically alive entering Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway, it is essentially a two-driver race with Team Penske’s Will Power clinging to a slim 17-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.
And it will all be settled over 500 miles on a very hot two-mile oval. The high temperature for Saturday is expected to be 103 degrees but as the sun sets and the bright lights come on to illuminate the track that Roger Penske built and owned in the mid-1990s before selling it to the International Speedway Corporation in 1999, expect this battle to heat up well into the night.
It pits the two winningest drivers this season with Hunter-Reay scoring his fourth victory in dramatic and skillful fashion at the Grand Prix of Baltimore on September 2. Power won three-straight races in April including victories at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama; the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. But that win on April 29 was the last time Power claimed a checkered flag, although he went on to claim the Mario Andretti Trophy as the top street and road course driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series this season.
Hunter-Reay also had a three-race winning streak in the early summer with victories on the flat one-mile oval at The Milwaukee Mile, the high-banked short track at Iowa Speedway in June and the Honda Indy Toronto on July 8.
While the championship battle is tight between Power and Hunter-Reay lurking in the background is Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves, 52 points back and two-time IndyCar champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon at 53 points back. But with a maximum of 53 points available to an IndyCar winner (50 points) one bonus point for the pole and two bonus points for the most laps even if Dixon accumulated every point possible last place in the field pays 10 points so both those drivers will be eliminated once the race begins.
All Power has to do to claim his first series championship is to beat Hunter-Reay, but that will not be easy. It becomes much more difficult for Hunter-Reay to defeat Power with IndyCar statistics claiming more than 30 scenarios for that to happen.
For instance, if Hunter-Reay wins the race and takes the three bonus points, Power must finish second. If Hunter-Reay wins the race with two bonus points, Power must finish third with one bonus point. If Power starts the race and finishes 25 or 26th, Hunter-Reay must finish sixth or better to win the title.
If Hunter-Reay wins the pole and the race, Power must finish third or better. If Hunter-Reay wins with no bonus points, Power must finish fourth with two bonus points or third with no bonus points. If Power starts the race and finishes 18-24th, Hunter-Reay must finish fifth or better, regardless of bonus points.
In case of a tie, Hunter-Reay has the edge with four wins versus three for Power.
While this year’s championship may once again come down to the last turn of the last lap similar to Dario Franchitti’s dramatic 2007 championship over Scott Dixon at Chicagoland Speedway, it will be contested over 500 miles. It’s the first time in the current IZOD IndyCar Series that two 500-mile races have been contested in the same season although there were multiple 500-mile races on the old CART schedules at such venues as Michigan, Pocono, Ontario and Fontana.
Based on past history, the edge on the ovals could go to Hunter-Reay who has four of his nine career wins including the Champ Car World Series on oval race tracks. Power has one oval-track victory and that came in one of the two Twin races held at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011. Since that time, Power’s oval races have been filled with problems, such as last year’s race at Kentucky Speedway when he was running away from the field before coming into the pit area for his first pit stop, only to have Ana Beatriz run into Power on pit lane.
In 2010, Power was clinging to a slim points lead at Homestead-Miami Speedway but crashed out of the contest as Franchitti went on to score the third of his four IZOD IndyCar Series championships.
Power had a 37-point lead two weeks ago at Baltimore after winning the pole but his race was foiled when his team opted for rain tires as it began to sprinkle. Hunter-Reay gambled and stayed on the dry tires and took over the lead once Power pitted.
Once in front, Hunter-Reay drove with fearless determination including a foot-to-the-floor restart that was perfectly timed to pass race leader and Power’s teammate Ryan Briscoe late in the race.
Power was despondent after the race but vowed that he would not let a championship slip away in 2012.
“It’s going to be obviously a tough race, 500 miles,” Power said earlier this week. “I’ve been in this position for the last two years. We just focus on the job that we have to do to execute on the day. The rest will work itself out. Either we’ll be champion or we won’t.
“The approach is the same every weekend. You go into the race to win it. Really you go into the race to make the most of every situation as it presents itself. Yes, I would say I’ve improved for sure over the last two years, but I don’t think my approach is very different.”
Hunter-Reay is attempting to become the first driver from the United States to win the IZOD IndyCar Series championship since Sam Hornish, Jr. claimed his third and final title in 2006 for Team Penske.
While Power has to protect a slim points lead Hunter-Reay simply has to “go for it.”
“It’s on both of us, for sure,” Hunter-Reay said. “We have the biggest trophy in the sport on the line, and the championship is what you’re always after. I definitely like the position we’re in, chasing. We’ve been doing that for most of the year. I think we’ve been getting better at it.
“We need to go out and focus on winning. That’s really what it’s going to be about. 500 miles is a long race. The race that we have in the first 250 is going to be a lot different than we have in the last 250. We could see a lot of comers and goers. It’s going to be changing the entire time.
“We have to go out there and do what we know how to do, and that’s contend for race wins.”
Hunter-Reay credits the Baltimore victory as the key moment of his season – more so than the three-straight wins he accumulated earlier this summer. Hunter-Reay was coming off a crushing disappointment in the previous race at Sonoma when he was third late in the race and contending for the victory before he was crashed by Alex Tagliani on a restart.
By overcoming a disappointing qualification session at Baltimore Hunter-Reay was able to thrust himself back into serious contention.
And that has set up this “500-Mile Finale.”
“Because it’s a 500-mile race, we need to make our race car good throughout the race,” Hunter-Reay revealed. “When it comes to the end, it’s risk-taking time no matter what. We have to go for it. If we’re doing anything other than that, we don’t deserve it.”
Power admits that while he has to run his own race on Saturday night he will be keeping tabs on Hunter-Reay.
“I will be aware the whole race where he’s at, more so the second half of the race,” Power said. “You just make decisions as you go along. You understand the situation and react accordingly.”
Hunter-Reay’s mission is simple.
“We need to be fighting for the lead the last few stints of the race,” he said. “That’s the key. It comes down to that. If we finish first, second or third, we got a shot at winning this thing. But first is all we’re focused on.
“We have to be there in that lead group fighting for the lead like we did at Iowa at the end. That’s really the objective for us. Anything short of that really isn’t going to do it.”
While the race of the year was easily the Indianapolis 500 with a race-record 34 lead changes in perhaps the most competitive Indy 500 in history Saturday night’s race at Fontana will likely be more reflective of this past June’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. As the tires began to fall off over the course of a fuel run the grip level would change leading to a more traditional oval track race.
But with this race starting under hot conditions when the sun goes down the grip level will actually improve.
“That’s going to be interesting,” Power predicted. “As it cools down, we’re going to gain grip. I see it probably a little bit more like Texas. I think Indy was too easy this year. It was just wide open, especially in qualifying. Based on tests, with the bumps and everything, I can’t see that. I think it will be a good race. I think there will be good passing, some cars will go off, some cars will be a bit better. Yeah, probably a bit more like Texas.
“Reliability and all that sort of thing come into play. You could be two laps down early in the race and get that back in the end.
“I think it will be interesting.”
To add to the intrigue this year’s championship battle may be a preview of Team Penske’s lineup for next season. Hunter-Reay is in the final year of his contract with Andretti Autosport and is being hotly pursued by Team Penske for one of the seats on the three-car team. Power and Castroneves will both return to Team Penske next season and Ryan Briscoe has been linked to take over the No. 38 car for team owner Chip Ganassi replacing current driver Graham Rahal.
Team owner Roger Penske has been famous throughout his career when it comes to drivers that beat him. He goes out and hires them.
That will all be determined in the off-season but the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion will be known when the checkered flag falls under the lights at California as the clock strikes midnight back in Indianapolis.