NASCAR opens their ten race Chase at Chicagoland, but this is Open-Wheel’s weekend! Fourteen races in the books for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series and it all comes down to this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for the MAVTV 500 on Saturday night! This will be the ultimate test for the two teams vying for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship as the IndyCar season concludes on the 2-Mile oval track located an hours drive outside Los Angeles. The last time IndyCar graced the facility with its presence was 2005 in the season finale won by Dario Franchitti and crowning the late Dan Wheldon the series champion, although Wheldon sealed the championship the week before. The 2012 IndyCar World Championships mark seventh consecutive season that the championship will be decided in the final round with no Chase, Countdown, or Overtime required.
WILL POWER VS. RYAN HUNTER-REAY
There were 26 driver/car combinations entered for the first race at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Peterburg, but it all comes down to two drivers at Auto Club Speedway. Will Power enters the weekend with a 17-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay, the only other driver who could walk away from the MAVTV 500. While Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon remain, currently, eligible for the championship they will be mathematically eliminated once Will Power completes his qualifying run as Power will be guaranteed a starting position and enough points to eliminate those two drivers once the green flag falls. No matter which driver walks away with the championship, it will be a great story to cap an incredible IndyCar season.
Will Power began his open-wheel career in Champ Car capturing four wins with Team Australia, but was left without a car to drive when sponsorship contracts were not renewed. Then, in 2009, The Captain, Roger Penske, came calling to hire him as a replacement for Helio Castroneves until he was able to return. Power has been a top contender for the IndyCar championship since joining Team Penske full-time in 2010. In that time, Power has amassed fourteen victories and finished runner-up in the final points standing the past two seasons. Power has had the field covered for much of the last three years, however, he has fallen just short of the series title. Truth be told, Power has wiped the pavement with the rest of the field on road and street courses, but his downfall has been performance on oval tracks where he has just one victory. Place on top of the pile that Power has never competed at the Fontana track and his first time on the track was a test the week prior. Through his own mistakes or bad luck, Power is notorious for choking in season finale races but this could be the year that Power’s season long work is finally rewarded with a series championship but he must be bolstered for a fight to the end.
Ryan Hunter-Reay enters the finale trailing Will Power by 17 points. Hunter-Reay’s history in racing has been turbulent at best. Hunter-Reay joined Champ Car in 2003 and became a journeyman until 2005 when he was released from the Rockesports team with two rounds to go. He, then, joined A1GP for 2006 into 2007 until being hired to replace Jeff Simmons in the Rahal Letterman Racing IndyCar which he drove in 2008 to the Chase Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500 but sponsorship dried up and Hunter-Reay was left without a ride for 2009. Hunter-Reay joined Vision Racing as teammate for Ed Carpenter and had to scratch and claw his way into the Indianapolis 500 after which he moved to AJ Foyt Racing replacing the injured Vitor Meira. Hunter-Reay got his break in 2010 signing to drive for Andretti Autosport with funding from IZOD. With IZOD only a partial season deal, Andretti stuck his neck out for American driver scrapping enough money together to run the full season. DHL/SunDrop came onboard for the full campaign in 2011 where Hunter-Reay failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, coming under scrutiny for “stealing” Bruno Junqueira’s qualified car. If Hunter-Reay wins the championship, all of his perseverance will be rewarded, maybe not on the timetable Ryan envisioned, but a reward nonetheless. Hunter-Reay would also be the first American driver to win the IndyCar crown since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
TEAM PENSKE VS. ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT
If the finale were on a road course, 17 points would be deemed difficult if not insurmountable, but this is an oval track with higher speeds, high banks, and points can come and go quickly. Hunter-Reay currently leads the Oval Championship, bolstered by short-track wins at Milwaukee and Iowa, but Auto Club Speedway is a different animal. The IZOD IndyCar technical department along with the drivers developed an aerodynamic baseline using the wing package, shown below, utilized at Indianapolis combined with the low underwing downforce used at Texas Motor Speedway to inhibit pack racing and putting the car in the driver’s hands.
The Firestone tire compound is expected to be similar to Texas so cars will be coming and going in much the same fashion. Teammates could be the lynchpin to this Championship. Power has allies in Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe while Hunter-Reay can rely on Hinchcliffe, Andretti, and Saavedra. On paper, the teammate advantage goes heavily in favor of Team Penske as Castroneves is the only driver to compete at Auto Club Speedway of those listed and Briscoe is close behind in oval experience and success.
500 MILE SPECTACLE UNDER THE SATURDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
What separates this race from other championship finales is that it is a marathon. The race is 250 laps and 500 miles in length, by far the longest final race in series history. The race will begin in the failing light, move into twilight, and end under the lights so adjusting the car as the track temperature changes will be of paramount importance to the contenders for the championship or the race win. The race will require seven or eight pit stops so the pressure is on the crew to execute these changes quickly to put their driver in a position toward the front.
This is going to be an EPIC finale to the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season and anything can happen once the green flag falls. There will be 26 cars vying for positions in this race and only seven of them give a rip about the championship which leaves opportunity for drivers outside the championship hunt to cause problems for the contenders. Everyone knows this offseason is going to be long and they will all be looking for a positive result as they park their cars for 2012. Tune in to NBC Sports Network at 7:30 eastern time Saturday night for all the action!
OTHER NOTES: AJ Foyt Racing driver, Mike Conway, revealed his extensive discomfort for oval racing surrendering the No. 14 ABC Supply car to Wade Cunningham this weekend. Conway’s IndyCar future is unknown at this time.
Legendary motorsports announcer Bob Jenkins will be calling his final race for the forseeable future on Saturday. Jenkins has brought a professional, endearing, and exciting flavor to IndyCar broadcasts since taking on the anchor role in 2010. May his journey after Saturday be swift and fruitful and we’ll see him at Indianapolis next May.