The two-way shoot-out for the IndyCar Series title is not the only potential flashpoint set for Chicagoland Speedway this weekend, as Raphael Matos and Richard Antinucci are engaged in the closest points battle in Firestone Indy Lights history.
While the three-point margin between the Brazilian and his sole remaining rival presents a multitude of possibilities for either of the drivers to claim the Firestone Firehawk Cup, the easiest solution would be for one of them to win their first race on an oval.
Matos' career is studded with championships – Champ Car Atlantic in 2007, Star Mazda in 2005 and Formula Dodge in 2003 - and he's built a three-point lead over Antinucci with three victories and seven top-five finishes in his first full Indy Lights campaign. While proving victorious on the streets of St Petersburg and the road courses at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, the AFS/AGR driver's best finish on an oval is third at Milwaukee, although he has won the pole at both Homestead-Miami and Kentucky.
“I think the approach will be pretty much the same as everywhere we've been,” Matos insisted, “We show great speed pretty much everywhere we've been but, obviously, we've won three races on road courses. We tested last week at Chicago, and we showed great speed, and we've had two pole positions at the mile-and-a-half oval courses this year, so we definitely have a great car for that track.”
Antinucci, the nephew of former Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever, cut his teeth in the competitive European formula car ranks, winning races in the F3 Euroseries, and, like Matos, has wins this season at St Petersburg and Watkins Glen, with a best oval finish of second at both Homestead-Miami and Indianapolis.
“I'm really looking forward to this last race because we've brought ourselves to this point and we have a chance,” Antinucci said, “We're almost going in even, as if the championship race started this race. It's almost a fair crack at it.
“We've done pretty well on our last superspeedway, which is also very important, so we're coming in here with momentum. We know we're very good at least in the race, so I think we can pull out a good result this weekend, hopefully good enough to put two cars between us and our main contender.”
Whoever emerges in front in the race and in the championship - and the rivalry between them intensified after contact at Infineon Raceway recently - will have to do so at a venue where all six Firestone Indy Lights or Indy Pro Series races have been decided by less than seven-tenths of a second. Last year's race was decided by just 0.0005secs, as Logan Gomez beat eventual champion Alex Lloyd to the flag.
“It's tough,” Matos admitted, “Everybody's flat out all the time. You obviously have to trust the driver that you're running side-by-side with. More than likely, you have someone in front of you and someone right behind you - but hopefully I will be up front so I won't have that problem.”