FONTANA, Calif. — It was a night of highs and lows when the nature of the race would change dramatically and the championship lead would swing back and forth between the two drivers that were eligible for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship.
In some ways, Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway was a throwback race to the old days of IndyCar racing when 500-mile races were a battle of attrition. And while the race victory went to the fastest driver on the track — pole winner Will Power — the season championship was determined by a few twists of fate between Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves.
In the early stages of the race, Castroneves was the driver who was able to race his way to the front while Dixon was mired in mid-pack. But in a 250-lap race at the two-mile oval at Fontana, there was no reason for Dixon to put his car in harms way early in the contest because he was content to drive a strategic race and wait for the right time to make his move.
Dixon ultimately worked his way to the front and was ahead of Castroneves on the race track. With a 25-point lead, Dixon was assured of winning his third career IndyCar Series championship with a fifth-place finish no matter where Castroneves finished.
But when team owner Roger Penske made an uncharacteristic mistake by calling for Castroneves to pit while the pits were closed just 48 laps from the finish, it was the beginning of the end for the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner’s hopes of winning his first IndyCar Series championship. It went from bad to worse for Castroneves when he made contact with Charlie Kimball’s car breaking the front wing of Castroneves’ Dallara/Chevrolet on lap 225.
He had to pit to replace the front wing and when he returned to the track he was in sixth place but the first car one lap down.
It looked like Dixon could cruise to the championship but his car began to overheat because of the unusually high amount of dirt, sand and debris that was clogging the radiator screens of the cars on the track. He pitted under green with 21 laps left so his team could clean out the radiator and while he was in the pits, Sebastien Bourdais crashed on the backstretch to bring out the a caution.
It kept Dixon from falling off the lead lap and although he would make one more pit stop a few laps later to clean out more crud from the radiator he clinched his third IndyCar Series championship with a fifth-place finish — one position ahead of Castroneves, who was one lap down.
Power won the race for his third win of 2013 and the 21st of his career but only his second on an oval and his first in a 500-mile race. And while team owner Penske was able to celebrate Power’s race victory the enthusiasm for the team owner was tempered by the team’s failure to win the IndyCar Series championship for the first time since Sam Hornish Jr. won the title in 2006.
It marked the sixth-straight year a Team Penske driver went into the final race of the season with a chance to win the championship only to see a driver from another team win the title.
But this was a championship that Dixon earned, staging a dramatic comeback that began at the midway point of the season when he drove to victory in the Pocono IndyCar 400 Fueled by Sunoco on July 7. It was the first of three-straight victories over an eight-day period for Dixon who jumped from ninth to second in the standings during that period.
Castroneves, who had a very steady and consistent season by finishing every lap of every race heading into the Houston doubleheader two weeks ago, only had one win during the season and was hoping consistency would be his ticket to his first career title. But his weekend in Houston was the crushing blow to his championship as gearbox issues in the first race and a broken gearbox housing in the second race saw his 49-point lead over Dixon turn into a 25-point deficit.
And that put Dixon in control of his own destiny at California and it was enough to give him his third series championship by 27 points over Castroneves.
“It was pretty crazy having to start back in the pack a little bit,” said Dixon, who took a 10-grid spot penalty for an unapproved engine change to make sure he had an engine that would last the full 500 miles and started 17th. “I moved up I think on the initial lap, then kind of had a few issues with the balance of the car, being back in the pack. We seemed to lose the balance a bit with understeer.
“I think for us it was more about maintaining. I could see still the leader. I was checking in with the team to see how fast the lead was getting away. The biggest thing in that position is to stay on the lead lap. The pack was still pretty compressed. I sort of just maintained. We worked on the car a little bit. We tried changing some tire pressures, working with the bars, the weight jacker. Didn’t find the balance till sort of about lap 80, as late as 100. Once we got the balance set, the car was good, we were able to move up and really contend.”