Night showdown looms at Fontana
12 September 2012
This weekend sees the final race in the slightly curtailed 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season, and Penske's Will Power goes into the 500-mile night race at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana in California with a slender 17pt margin over Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter Reay.
That lead might suggest that Power has the upper hand in the title battle and is finally on the cusp of his first championship success after so many near misses; but the final race is on an oval track, where Hunter-Reay has had the upper hand over Power all season, so maybe that makes it a level playing field? Hunter-Reay's team boss Michael Andretti is certainly sounding upbeat about their chances.
"For sure, Ryan is going to be a factor there," he said. "Don't count Will out - he's a real competitor, he's a great driver. But obviously he doesn't have the experience, quite as much experience as what Ryan does, especially on this track that we are going to. I'm not even sure if Will ever ran on a track like that before, so hopefully that will help us out a little bit."
In fact, Power's previous record at season finales possibly means that Hunter-Reay should even be considered the favourite going into the finale: "Maybe it will be the first, last race that I finish, because every year, I get crashed out," he conceded. "I'm determined this time to just finish the last race - and finish it as the leader of the championship.
"Good news is, if I take Hunter‑Reay out in the last race, we crash out together, I win!" he quipped at a press conference with Hunter-Reay sitting alongside him. "So let's go side‑by‑side!"
While Power is getting to be an old hand at being involved in these end-of-season title decider cliffhangers, it's a new experience for Ryan Hunter-Reay: "Man, I'm so happy to be a part of it, so cool," he said. "We get to go to Fontana, which is an absolute crapshoot. It's wide open and anybody's race."
But Hunter-Reay certainly isn't underestimating the challenge he faces from Will Power and from Team Penske.
"Will is absolutely, you know, one of the best drivers that's been in IndyCar in a very long time," he said. "But I really believe in my team and I believe when it comes to race day, we may not be the highest qualifiers all the time but the guys do an awesome job on stops and you know I'm a 110 percent every lap. It's a great group of drivers."
Power returned the generous estimation of his remaining rival for the 2012 IndyCar title.
"I've always rated him very highly," he said. "It was a matter of time before he got in a good team situation where he could win consistently and be up there consistently, so I expected it. He's probably the best all‑around driver in the series because he wins at every discipline."
Both drivers said that they understood that in tight seasons, it often came down to a matter of who got the best breaks.
"Will and I were talking about it the other day, the bad luck I've had the past couple of races," Hunter-Reay said of the races at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma which saw his chances look like they were slipping away, before he rallied back with a committed performance at Baltimore.
"This guy knows the bad luck, too," he added. "I mean, he was leading Kentucky when he was fighting Dario last year - last year, right? Man, it seems like a long time ago - when he had an incident in pit lane while dominating the race and got taken out of contention. So he kind of feels how I felt at Sonoma. It's tough - that's how racing is."
"It can be so cruel," agreed Power. "To have done such a good job and be taken out on the last restart ... that sort of thing, but that is racing.
"The guy who has the least amount of those sort of days wins the championship, and that's just how it goes," he added. "You can be as upset as you want at the time and say it not fair and bad luck and all this, but at the end of the day it kind of all works itself out by the end."
A little back-up out on the track can go a long way as well. Michael Andretti has said that he expects his drivers - which include James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti - to work as a team in any way that they can to help secure the title, which means that the use of team orders will be at Hunter-Reay's disposal should it come down to that.
"We are making it a show in Fontana, and that's what it's all about," he said. "We are excited about it and we feel very good that, you know, we are going to be a factor there in the end."
Perhaps for that reason, Andretti has chosen to add an extra car at Fontana meaning they their four-car line-up will outnumber the Penske trio. Sebastian Saavedra will once again get an outing in an Andretti co-entry with AFS Racing, having previously made an appearance at Indianapolis in May and at Sonoma last month. It'll be the Colombian's first night race in the series.
"He'll be fine, he's driven night races before," insisted Andretti. "I don't think he will have any problems.The good thing is he'll have three teammates to help him as well.
Andretti spelled out the advantage of expanded the team's line-up: "It's helped us - even at Sonoma there were a few things that Sebastian found in practice that actually helped the other guys," he said. "Having more cars out there helps and we have great people and his team ‑ it's not taking away from the other three teams."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the end of the season is the lack of any Chip Ganassi Racing drivers still in the hunt for this year's title. Either Dario Franchitti or his team mate Scott Dixon have won the IZOD IndyCar Series championship every year since 2006, but this year Franchitti stumbled early and Dixon's last remaining hopes were extinguished despite a decent run at Baltimore two weeks ago.
"There have simply been too many issues and so we were mathematically eliminated from the championship with two rounds to go," said outgoing champion Dario Franchitti of his season in his regular blog for racer.com. "But realistically, the game was up before then. Whether it was getting a handle on the new car, being outpaced, engine blow-ups, pit stop issues and just sheer bad luck, we just weren't able to take advantage of all the days when we had a winning car."
Not being in the championship battle didn't mean that Franchitti was any less motivated to end the season on a high with a win at Fontana, however.
"I think we stand at least as good a chance at Fontana as anyone else, we can just go for it," he insisted. "There's a lot less pressure on us in the finale than in the past three years – and to be honest, that feels horrible! I really would be happy to deal again with the pressure of going for the championship."
So who does Franchitti think will be taking over from him as champion after this weekend?
"I think Will has become a smart operator in terms of accumulating points and seeing the big picture," he said. "You don't see Will making a risky pass for fourth if he thinks he might lose a nose-wing doing it; he'll take the fifth place. And that has made him more consistent in a year when it's damn hard to be consistent.
"Ryan has been on full attack mode," he continued. "I'd say Ryan has been very aggressive this year, and there have been times when he's been quite lucky to get away with it. But then again, it's his first championship battle at this level of racing and in those circumstances, you do try and ride your luck for as long as you can."
Which approach does Franchitti think will ultimately pay off come this weekend?
"I think it's pointless to say who I think deserves to win," he insisted. "While I'm intrigued to see who my successor is as champion, I'm not so interested that I'll be asking Chip for updates on the radio during the race," he said. "I want to be standing in victory lane with the Target Chip Ganassi Racing boys."
Win or lose, at this point Hunter-Reay is just savouring the moment of being in with a shot of the title and celebrating how good 2012 has been for him and Andretti Autosport.
"I'm certainly very thankful for all of the opportunities that I've been given in my life and racing. I've had the opportunity to drive a lot of different formulas and a lot of different race cars," he said. "All things happen for a reason and if you keep working at something it's going to come good; and if you believe in it, most of all, if you believe in it, it can come good and that's how I have just gone about it.
"The period from the end of 2005 to 2007, those were the longest days of my life not having a ride, an answer, not having anything. That was a long time period. I just kept my faith at the racetrack and kept working at it," he continued. "Just like life in general, the more you put in, the more you get out of it.
"Every day I show up on the job, I have a beautiful IndyCar sitting there waiting for me, and that's my job to drive it, I mean, how cool is that. That's awesome, awesome. Couldn't think of anything better."
Just a few days will tell whether Hunter-Reay's high spirits are rewarded by becoming the first American winner of the IndyCar title since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, or whether Will Power will finally be triumphant after so many near-misses in recent years.