And 49 Points Go ‘POOF’!


Castroneves Houstone 2013The signs were all pointing in the right direction.  Helio Castroneves carried a 49 point lead on Scott Dixon into the Houston double-header only needing to maintain consistency to solidify his name atop the IndyCar Points standings signifying him the winner of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.  Not since 2004 has IndyCar seen a driver compete with the consistency that Helio Castroneves has traversed in 2013.  Add to that that the Team Penske driver was ‘untouchable’ on the speed chart during the test at Auto Club Speedway which will serve host to the IndyCar World Championships on October 19.  All Castroneves had to do was keep his nose clean during the Houston weekend and he would clasp his firm grip on the championship.  The IndyCar gods had other plans.

The 2013 season has seen Castroneves benefit from others misfortune on numerous occasions, and, while he deserves credit for putting himself in the position to take advantage of those miscues, it had to come back around at some point.  Luck in racing is like a one hit wonder music artist in that it shines on you for a while and goes away overnight.  Castroneves wishes it had shined for a few weekends more.

The weekend started out badly for Castroneves as a mishandling car in qualifying on Saturday resulted in a starting grid position of 21st, his worst of the season on one of the most physically demanding circuits on the IndyCar schedule.  Even with the poor grid position, Castroneves only needed to, methodically, drive his way up through the field as he had done countless races previous, but the unthinkable happened on lap 22 when Castroneves’ No. 3 Shell V-Power Chevrolet slowed in turn four and limped to pit lane with a gearbox issue.  Team Penske rectified the issue but not before Castroneves found himself several laps in arrears of the leader who just happened to be title rival Scott Dixon.  The worst case scenario had occured as Dixon secured the race win and maximum points while Castroneves was forced to settle for 17th place…a result that his points lead shrink to just eight markers heading to the second race of the weekend on Sunday.

Castroneves Car Houston 2013As day broke on Sunday, Castroneves and the No. 3 team caught a break from mother nature as a heavy rain shower washed out qualifying for race two putting Castroneves on the Pole with his rival, Dixon, right alongside.  After a great start, Castroneves hit a colossal bump on the front stretch fracturing the gear box housing putting him behind the wall and last place in the running order.  The worst possible weekend that Castroneves could have dreamed of happened and he leaves Houston, a weekend he entered leading by 49 points, trailing Dixon by 25 points heading to the finale at Auto Club Speedway.

Castroneves Auto Club 2012The scenario becomes very simple headed to Fontana in two weeks.  In order to win the title, Helio Castroneves will have to be at least as special as what was indicated in the test session and he will need some mishap for Dixon.  With 25 points separating the two, if Castroneves wins Pole Position, leads the most laps, and wins the race he has a maximum possible points of 53 for the weekend.  Even if Castroneves scores max points that weekend, Dixon can finish sixth and still win the IndyCar Series championship.  This is far from over and five hundred miles is a long time to race to decide this thing.  Rest assured, no matter what happens in the championship, the IndyCar finale at Auto Club Speedway will be one of the races to watch across the 2013 motorsports calendar!  Make sure to tune in to see how it all finishes out!

Race Preview: Milwaukee IndyFest


MILWAUKEE INDYFEST LOGOMilwaukee MapINDYCAR continues its oval stretch this weekend when they grid cars on the famous Milwaukee Mile for the ninth round of the IZOD IndyCar Series 2013 campaign.  Milwaukee, known as the “Mini-Indy”, is a 1-mile oval which contains no banking.  The lack of banking creates a driver/engineer exercise unlike any other the IndyCars face on the schedule.  The driver must be prepared to drive 250 miles up on the wheel navigating traffic while engineers must work to give their drivers a setup that will allow he or she to attack the track…which is essential to be competitive.  Although designed after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Milwaukee Mile presents INDYCAR teams and drivers with a vastly different challenge.

FUEL, FUEL, FUEL…

Fuel ThingyFuel mileage always plays a huge role in Auto Racing whether it decides a race at the end or if, like in Texas last week, the winning driver is the last to pit each stint of the race giving themselves an advantage and the ability to avoid bad luck yellow flags because they are on a lap of their own.  While fuel mileage will certainly play a role in this race, the distance has been increased from 225 miles to 250 miles to discourage immediate fuel conservation and make the show more entertaining from the get go.  Look for who can run the longest stints on fuel.

HELIO HAS WORK TO DO

Helio Castroneves Milwaukee 2013Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves, fresh of his win at Texas, enters the Milwaukee IndyFest as the IZOD IndyCar Series points leader by 21 markers over Marco Andretti.  Though Castroneves showed very competitive in practice, a greedy qualifying setup resulted in a very neutral, or loose, qualifying run.  The result, Castroneves will lead the bottom third of the grid to the green flag in 18th position.  Castroneves’ problem got compounded when Andretti, his championship rival, already closed the gap by one point by winning the Verizon P1 Pole Award and will lead the field to the green flag.  Castroneves will need to navigate traffic, stay out of trouble, and make it to the front if he is to retain the points lead leaving heading to Iowa because Marco certainly has the leg up so far this weekend.

FOLLOW ANDRETTI…Marco Andretti 2013 milwaukee

Qualifying at the Milwaukee IndyFest looked like an Andretti Autosport parade until Will Power broke into the top-3.  Still, Andretti Autosport captured four of the top five starting positions so they are loaded for bear.  Starting outside row one is James Hinchcliffe who was absolutely out to lunch in practice but a long shot setup thrown at the car generated speed and grip allowing the Mayor of Hinchtown to complete the Andretti Autosport sweep of the front row.  Can they capitalize on their starting positions to win the race?

WHERE’S THE TARGET?

Dario Franchitti Milwaukee 2013While both Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers are now in the top-ten in points, we have yet to see any of the dominant runs that we are used to seeing from the team with the Target painted on their sidepods.  The team that, at one point, won five consecutive series titles seems to be struggling in every way possible so far this season be it mechanical failures, grip, or horsepower.  Scott Dixon led the Ganassi operation with a eleventh place starting position on the grid while Dario Franchitti will start mired back with fellow three time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves in nineteenth position.  Can Ganassi use strategy and find the setup that will allow their drivers to utilize the ‘sweet spot’ on the DW12 that makes the car go so fast?

WHO IS GONNA WIN IT?

Michael AndrettiThis race was dead to rights two years ago until Michael Andretti personally stuck his neck under the guillotine to revive it.  Like Roger Penske revived the Grand Prix of Detroit, Andretti saw value in racing at one of the oldest tracks in North America and created a festival atmosphere around the event to entice all types of fans to come and enjoy the most exciting short track racing any series has to offer.  The 2012 race has saved this race for the time being and, with any luck, the attendance needle will move in the positive direction this year and lead to the Milwaukee Mile holding a permanent place on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule as the series and its management move forward.  From Sam Hornish driving like a madman to win after spinning out his teammate to Ryan Briscoe capturing his first career win while avoiding Vitor Meira climbing over the top of Marco Andretti in 2008, the race at the Milwaukee Mile never disappoints.  Who wins this race, you ask?  All fans of INDYCAR are winners of this race for the simple reason that it is happening!

Through Six Practice Days…Who Has What?!


97TH Indy500 LogoThrough six days of practice, the field for the Indianapolis 500 has left spectators with nothing to be disappointed about.  The weather has been cooperative allowing 9,000 some laps to be turned in six days with a full field of 33 cars all gracing the famed Brickyard with their presence.  Single car runs have dominated the early portions of the day while afternoons have seen packs of at least five cars running together.  The field in IndyCar for 2013 is so competitive that there is no clear favorite to win the Pole or the Race and the enigma that is the IZOD IndyCar Series grid in 2013 continues to grant no clarity.

Each weekend so far in the IZOD IndyCar Series has been a complete crap shoot of who will finish on top; a welcome problem for all of us fans who like to think that our favorite drivers have only a few other cars to worry about in a given race.  It used to be that though IndyCar Series races gridded at least twenty cars each weekend that only four or five drivers had a realistic opportunity to win the race.  Not so in 2013 as each member of the IndyCar grid has a realistic opportunity to find their way at the front and win the race.  The stats speak for themselves.

Go ahead and poll anyone who associates with INDYCAR and ask them if they predicted, going into the Indianapolis 500, that Takuma Sato would be leading the points standings and Will Power would be sitting in 18th position with only a single top ten finish in four races with left and right turns.  If they say they predicted such a situation they are lying their pants on fire.  The first four races of Power’s season are no indication of his competitive pace, but rather outside influences hindering his finishing positions.  This only further indicates that mistakes made in IZOD IndyCar Series races this season will cost you dearly because driving through the field is an order as tall as the Eiffel Tower.

Back to the Indianapolis 500, it seems that Chevrolet has the early jump on the speed chart but we’ve read this melodrama before.  Chevrolet easily had its way in qualifications snatching the Pole and eight of the top nine positions.  In fact, only Josef Newgarden was able to make the shootout at the end of Pole Day while the Ganassi operation was forced to start mid-pack.  While Chevrolet was basking in the Champagne of their gross outclassment of Honda in qualifying, their Japanese compatriots were licking no wounds as they had a plan in place when race engines were installed. Ganassi Hondas drove through the field taking it to Chevrolet in the race and captured INDYCAR’s crown jewel.

The bottom line is that through thirty hours of cars turning laps and practicing on track, we have no idea what anybody has stashed in the back of their DW12s for qualifying this weekend.  Teams get extra boost pressure in the turbo tomorrow so stay tuned as teams may, finally, show their hand in preparation for qualifying…but I doubt it.  Rest assured this will be the closest Pole Day qualifying show in the history of the Indianapolis 500 and Honda will certainly ensure they are not left out of the party as they were a year ago.

 

Roger Penske Throws A Life Preserver


 

Roger-PenskeRoger Penske, fresh off his first top level NASCAR championship, never ceases to throw curveballs into the world of Auto Racing.  Penske’s IZOD IndyCar Series operation, appearing hell bent on trimming from three cars to two, never ceases to provide out-of-the-blue and surprising news.  Team Penske came to realize that finding sponsorship to run three cars in 2013 was, quite possibly, and insurmountable task and subsequently released Ryan Briscoe to pursue other options after retaining three time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and perennial championship runner-up Will Power to contest the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series title.  Breaking news last week changed all that.

AJ AllmendingerPenske Racing announced last week that the team’s former NASCAR driver, AJ Allmendinger, would don a Penske Racing firesuit on February 19th to test one of Team Penske’s DW12 IndyCars at Sebring International Raceway.  Allmendinger’s test will be overseen by Penske Racing crew members as well as full-time drivers Power and Castroneves, with the end goal to grid Allmendinger in April at Barber Motorsports Park and Long Beach.  The Indianapolis 500 is also on the radar.

Champ Car World Series Powered by FordRecent history will regard AJ Allmendinger as a NASCAR driver, however, the native of Thornton, Colorado etched his name into the minds of team owners in the Champ Car World Series from 2004-2006.  He was forded the opportunity to drive as teammate to Paul Tracy at Forsythe Racing and really made his mark on the series wining four races and capturing fourth in the final points standings and becoming a regular thorn in the side of four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais.

Allmendinger RedBullAllmendinger was given the opportunity to join the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2007 as a member of the new Team RedBull operation as teammate to Brian Vickers but his full-time participation only lasted the 2007 season as he was relegated to part-time status in 2008 before moving to Richard Petty Motorsports from 2009-2011.  Allmendinger struck gold with the opportunity of a lifetime when Penske Racing signed him to drive for the team with sponsorship from Shell Pennzoil.  The season started difficultly as team and driver worked to find the same page on setups and just when it seemed they were making some headway, Allmendinger took the proverbial .44 Magnum and shot his career in the foot.  Suffering from the strain of the season, Allmendinger accepted a pill of Adderall from an acquaintance.  The following race weekend at Kentucky Speedway, Allmendinger was summoned for a random drug screening as per the NASCAR rule book.  Allmendinger tested positive for Amphetamines leading directly to his release from his Penske Racing contract as he completed the ‘Road to Recovery’ program and was reinstated.

Team Penske IZOD 2012AJ Allmendinger’s career looks to be headed full circle as he hopes to join the IZOD IndyCar Series in a part-time basis in 2013 eying a full-time drive for The Captain in 2014.  Roger Penske runs an organization built on loyalty and family with ‘once part of the organization, always part of the organization’ as its mantra.  Allmendinger handled his return from his drug suspension with the upmost professionalism which is just the kind of character Roger Penske desires and demands from all members of the Penske brand.  While at the unfortunate expense of Ryan Briscoe, Allmendinger’s opportunity to join auto racing’s most successful team is a fortunate happenstance for INDYCAR as it could put an American driver at the forefront of the IZOD IndyCar Series grid which is never a bad thing when trying to build momentum and exposure.

2013 IZOD IndyCar Series Primer


IZOD IndyCar SeriesAs teams begin testing for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, it is time to get moving on some of the things to watch for as we move into February where testing will be ramping up.  The 2012 season for INDYCAR was a great success with closer and safer competition, solutions to keep oval track races that eliminate the insanity but still manage to bring you to the edge of your seat, and an Indianapolis 500 that could possibly be enshrined as the best in the 101 year history of the event.  But, 2013 is a new season with a lot of new and a lot of remaining the same.  Looking to the new season, here are some ‘hot buttons’ to watch for as another run for the Astor Cup and the Borg Warner trophy begin once again.

AND THEN THERE WERE TWO…

Chevy EngineThe experiment bringing Lotus to INDYCAR as an engine manufacturer lasted only one season as Lotus and INDYCAR negotiated an exit for the European engine marque leaving Honda and Chevrolet with the responsibility to power the grid for the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.  The 2012 season saw some of the most intense engine competition in motorsports history.  So intense, in fact, that it got entangled in legal litigation and threatening lawsuits between series officials and engine manufacturers.

Chevrolet may have won the manufacturers and overall championships, but there is unfinished business as Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars won the Indianapolis 500 as well as the revival of the Grand Prix of Detroit for which Chevrolet is largely responsible.  Chevrolet was caught a bit off guard by Honda’s newest generation engines debut for the Indianapolis 500 and were vastly out dueled on race day.  Chevrolet will look to repeat its success on the road and street courses while improving their overall large oval performance.

Honda, conversely, would undoubtedly regard 2012 as a mis-step in their storied history in auto racing and would probably admit that Chevrolet brought the battle and perhaps underestimated the Chevrolet commitment and resolve in their first year return.  The previously mentioned legal battle took place because Honda was allowed to change their turbo cover to equalize to the Chevrolet on the road courses.  Honda will look to develop their engine to chase down Chevrolet on the road and street courses whilst keeping their advantage on the ovals.

DE SILVESTRO GETS HER OPPORTUNITY AS KV RACING REBOOTS

2013 KV RacingThe casualty in the Lotus debacle was that Simona de Silvestro spent the entire 2012 season handcuffed by a massive horsepower deficiency that saw her parked early at the Indianapolis 500 due to insufficient pace.  For 2013, de Silvestro and sponsor Nuclear Clean Air Energy move to KV Racing to partner with veteran Tony Kanaan.  For the first time in de Silvestro’s IndyCar career she will have an opportunity with a proven winning team and a Chevrolet powerplant to allow her to push her limits higher and, hopefully, turn faster laps.  Also of note, de Silvestro will have a teammate for the first time in her career and couldn’t have chosen a better partner than Tony Kanaan.  This team, KV Racing Technology, has a real opportunity to contend for the front of the grid this upcoming season.

RAHALS UNITE

Rahals UniteGraham Rahal must have thought he had the opportunity of a lifetime when he signed on to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing’s satellite operation in late-2010 but the marriage between Ganassi’s outfit and Rahal was never a stable relationship resulting in Graham Rahal’s release from the team for 2013.  What resulted was a perfect opportunity for Graham to take his sponosorship and team up with his dad at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.  Finally, the Rahals unite with Honda power and look to threaten the top of the grid consistently.

PENSKE TRIMS THEIR GRID

Power CastronevesThe years of a full-time three car Team Penske juggernaut appear to be at an end.  Although unconfirmed, it appears that Team Penske moves forward in 2013 with two cars piloted by perennial championship runner-up Will Power and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves while Champ Car and NASCAR veteran A.J. Allmendinger looks to join the team starting at Barber Motorsports Park as well as Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500.  While at the expense of Ryan Briscoe, trimming the team could bring a less-is-more situation where Team Penske can focus on fielding two competitive cars and beating Dario Franchitti and Target Chip Ganassi to the elusive fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.

GANASSI LOOKS FOR A REBOUND

IZOD IndyCar Series Firestone 500The four years between 2008 and 2011 could only be described as domination by Target Chip Ganassi Racing encompassing four consecutive championships and two Indianapolis 500 victories.  2012 was a little different as Dario Franchitti had difficulty getting a handle on the DW12 while Scott Dixon suffered some tough luck at points in the season and both drivers entered the season finale at Auto Club Speedway unable to contend for the championship, a situation not seen since 2005.  Chip Ganassi’s team managed to bring home just three wins in 2012, but they did get the most important win at the Indianapolis 500 but all involved would certainly chalk the season as an overall disappointment and they will look to rebound in 2013.  No one in the paddock believes the three cars from Chip Ganassi Racing will suffer consecutive difficult seasons and nor should we.  Chip Ganassi Racing will, undoubtedly, be there until the end in 2013.

HUNTER-REAY, ANDRETTI LOOK TO BUILD ON AMAZING 2012

RYAN HUNTER-REAY IOWA 2012Anybody remember in 2011 when Andretti Autosport spent the month of May at Indianapolis searching like detectives for enough speed to make the show much less contend on race day?  Fast forward to 2012, and my how they turned things around as they, along with Team Penske, held down the first two rows at Indianapolis and Hunter-Reay outdueled Will Power for the championship.  Even with their rapid turnaround, Andretti Autosport will look to put all three cars in Victory Lane and near the top in the points standings.

RACE CONTROL

Beaux BarfieldThe best hire in sports in 2012 was the installment of Beaux Barfield in INDYCAR Race Control replacing Brian Barnhart.  Barfield’s rules package simplified previously ambiguous and judgement-call rules such as blocking and avoidable contact by providing concrete lines in the rules that drivers could not cross.  Barfield made, perhaps, the gutsiest call in sports when he red flagged the season finale at Auto Club Speedway with five laps to facilitating a finish under the green flag.  For 2013, Barfield has further modified the rules to make the series easier to follow and instituted the possibility of standing starts on the double header weekends at Detroit, Toronto, and Houston.  Barfield will be looked to to maintain his resolve from 2012 and police the series’ drivers accordingly.

NEW LEADERSHIP

Jeff BelskusThe final hot button for 2013 is regarding new leadership at the top of INDYCAR.  Regardless of where you fall on Randy Bernard resignation debate, the fact of the matter is that Jeff Belskus is now the CEO of INDYCAR and the IZOD IndyCar Series.  Bernard’s departure was not handle correctly.  In fact, it was downright ugly how the Indianaplis Motor Speedway Corporation proceeded with the leadership change.  Belskus may be the CEO, however, Bernard’s fingerprints will be all over this season of INDYCAR Racing with the schedule and the movie ‘Turbo’ coming out later this summer, which, if handled correctly, could be a huge boost for the INDYCAR brand.  Belskus has been given the foundation to have a great season of competition and only needs to facilitate what Randy Bernard has left right in front of him.  What is desperately needed in INDYCAR is a liaison from the governing body of INDYCAR to its drivers and team owners.  The driver liaison has been, at least partially, fulfilled as Barfield has good relationship with the series’ drivers, but Belskus must institute a bridge between his office at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the team owners in the Paddock every weekend if history will record him as a successful leader.

2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Awards: Best Oval Track Race


This is the first in a series of IZOD IndyCar Paddock Pass awards posts.  Stay tuned for more awards!

BRONZE MEDAL: AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY’S MAVTV 500

In an effort to replace Las Vegas Motor Speedway as host for the INDYCAR World Championships, the IZOD IndyCar Series turned to Auto Club Speedway to close their 2012 campaign.  Bringing a combination of the Speedway wing package used at Indianapolis and low downforce used at Texas, the show was sure to be interesting.  Throw into the mix that the championship was coming down to the wire as Will Power entered the event with a 17-point lead on Ryan Hunter-Reay, but, as IndyCar Series campaigns have shown consistently, it isn’t over until the checkered flag falls and the MAVTV 500 became a prime example.  Both championship contenders suffered ill handling race cars and combined with grid penalties for engine changes, both started back in the pack.  The race took a dramatic turn on lap 55:

Battling with rival Hunter-Reay, Will Power attempted to make a low side pass, got loose, and spun into the turn 2 wall changing the entire scope of this race.  Hunter-Reay immediately had the best opportunity to win the championship but still needed to complete 195 laps and finish 5th, after Verizon Team Penske was able to repair Power’s car enough to run enough laps to make up one position, to score enough points to win the championship.  The race was drama filled to the end capped of by a gutsy ‘red flag’ call by Beaux Barfield to give the race the opportunity to end under green flag conditions.  Ed Carpenter managed to snatch the race from Dario Franchitti while Hunter-Reay grabbed the title from the clutches of Will Power.

SILVER MEDAL: 96TH INDIANAPOLIS 500 MILE RACE

It might be considered a travesty to not have the Indianapolis 500 as the winner of this award every season.  The 2012 rendition of the 500 mile marathon just outside downtown Indianapolis could be enshrined as the best race in the event’s 100+ year history.  The Chevy vs. Honda ‘Turbogate’ saga had been accepted and Honda’s new turbo cover had been approved my IndyCar’s technical department, but when Pole Day came around it looked as though it didn’t even matter as Josef Newgarden was the only Honda to crack the top-9 in qualifying.  The race turned out to be a different story as the brand new Honda engines installed for the 500 miles seemed to have new life.  The race began as a battle between Ryan Briscoe and James Hinchcliffe with Marco Andretti holding the lead through the middle stages of the race.  Then Honda and Chip Ganassi Racing began to show their muscle.

On the final lap, Takuma Sato attempted to pass Dario Franchitti in turn 1 when he spun hitting the wall giving the race win to the Scot followed closely by teammate Scott Dixon and KV Racing’s Tony Kanaan.  A race filled with close competition that set an event record for lead changes ended like the greatest stories ever told.  The unenviable backdrop to the 2012 Indianapolis 500 was paying tribute to Dan Wheldon and the race ended with all three of Wheldon’s former teammates and best friends crossing the bricks three wide under caution for the most fitting tribute of all to Dan’s legacy.

 

GOLD MEDAL: FIRESTONE 550 AT TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

As drama-filled and exciting as the Indianapolis 500 was, how could any event unseat it as the best oval race of 2012?

The award for best oval track race goes to the Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway for a very simple reason.  In the wake of the tragedy of Las Vegas, there was much apprehension and questions about the viability of IndyCars racing on the high banked 1.5 mile oval tracks that helped make IndyCar Racing famous, at least in the recent history of the sport.  In order to remain relevant and draw fans, the schedule’s balance between ovals and road courses must be retained.

The tension was mounting in the Paddock as the first practice inched closer and closer.  Drivers said they would no longer participate in pack racing on the ovals but elected to grid at Texas because they are professionals.  The beauty of the new DW12 chassis is that it has a wealth of aerodynamic options to add or remove downforce.  In conjunction with the drivers, IndyCar’s technical department came to Texas with a low-downforce package that would require drivers to lift in the turns instead of holding the throttle flat.  This became an instantaneous solution for the pack racing and brought some serious excitement as cars were coming and going all the time.  This was also a race for the ‘little guys’ as the Pole was won by Alex Tagliani while Justin Wilson took the race win for Dale Coyne Racing after Graham Rahal grazed the turn 4 wall with two laps to go.

This race gets top honors for 2012 oval track races because of what it means for the future of the sport.  Leading up to the race, drivers said they would run the race but they would also be very happy to leave when it was over, but fast forward to after the race was complete and the attitude changed to ‘we want to do this again’.  Justin Wilson may have crossed the finish line first, but the big winners in this race was the sport itself and its fans.  Oval tracks are here to stay and make no mistake that the results of Texas had direct correlation to the addition of Pocono Raceway in 2013.  A big ‘Thank You’ goes to Eddie Gossage for sticking with IndyCar through all the talk of configuration, pack racing, and fence talk to host IndyCar Paddock Pass’s ‘Best Oval’ of 2012.

 

 

 

CHAMPIONSHIP Preview: Auto Club Speedway


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.