And so once again, the battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship had come down to this - the last race of the season. One race and a million dollars, a large trophy and a place in the record books beckoned for either Scott Dixon or Helio Castroneves at the end of the night, but neither man could have expected it to be such a trial by ordeal that it virtually came down to who would be the last man left standing at the end of 500 miles of attrition.
As soon as the sun had dipped down low enough in the sky so as not to cause the drivers problems with glare, the 25 cars took to the track at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Framed against the spectacular backdrop of Mount Jurupa, they lined up three-wide to take the green flag for the start of the season finale MAVTV 500.
Penske team mates Will Power and AJ Allmendinger led the way, but all eyes were on their team mate Castroneves starting from 12th after opting for a ten-place grid penalty in order to secure himself a fresh engine for the night's endeavours and give him the best shot of lasting to the finish in order to clinch the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship. His sole remaining rival for the title, Scott Dixon, had taken a similar gambit and was starting two rows further back in 17th. Both men were gambling on the fact that it was easier to make up positions on an oval than at a street or road course, and that with a 250-lap race on a two-mile oval there was plenty of time for anything to happen.
While Power leapt away to an early lead, Allmendinger found the pace at the front too hot to handle and was quickly displaced by Sebastien Bourdais, Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan. Castroneves flew up into the top six within the first two laps and then entered the top three ahead of Kanaan by the end of lap 6, while Dixon made more stately progress from further back and seemed content to circulate in 13th place during the initial stages. It seemed like a classic case of the hare and the tortoise - but would the outcome of the old fable hold up in a sport where speed is king?
Power's early pace waned and Bourdais took over at the front on lap 12, with Power also quickly dropping behind Castroneves, Kanaan and Hunter-Reay. Bourdais stayed out in front for the next 20 laps until finally Hunter-Reay carried enough momentum to pull off a pass for the lead, Bourdais nearly washing up into the wall in his wake which allowed Castroneves to follow through for second place, at least for the next three laps until time came for his first pit stop of the evening on lap 35.
Most of the Chevy cars were also in soon after, Marco Andretti suffering a slow stop with the crew having problems with the front left wheel change. By lap 38, all 10 Chevy-powered cars that had been out in front had cycled through pit lane, leaving a Honda (James Jakes) in command for the first time. Dixon himself lasted until lap 40 before coming in, proving once again that while the Chevrolet engine might have the raw speed, the Hondas had the edge on the fuel conservation side. Would that prove to be the deciding factor tonight?
After the pit cycle had completed, Hunter-Reay was back out in front with Castroneves running close behind and ahead of Power, Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, Allmendinger and Bourdais, while Dixon continued to make little forward progress and was still outside the top ten as the lap count ticked past 60. Despite the ten position gap, it was still good enough to keep Dixon mathematically in the title lead for the time being.
The race had gone 70 laps without caution when it finally got a two-for-one deal next time by, Sebastian Saavedra spinning into the wall after suffering a cut rear tyre, and Pippa Mann was unable to get down in time avoid him without running into the wall herself. That sent the rest of the field onto pit road, thereby emphatically resetting the fuel conservation imbalance between Honda and Chevrolet: Hunter-Reay retained the lead ahead of Castroneves, Power, Hinchcliffe and Allmendinger, but the big development in terms of the title battle was Scott Dixon emerging from pit lane in sixth place ahead of Bourdais and Kanaan.
Racing resumed on lap 82, with Castroneves finally getting the better of Hunter-Reay for a short-lived lead before he was passed in turn by Marco Andretti, while further back the field was backed up by a sluggish Will Power. James Hinchcliffe damaged his front wing in the jumble and was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop soon after, while Scott Dixon flirted with championship disaster when the rear of the #9 made contact with the front wing of Carlo Munoz who was at the wheel of the #5 Andretti-HVM car subbing for the sick EJ Viso.
Marco's turn of speed proved brief and then it was Sebastian Bourdais' turn to shine under the floodlights with a surge into the front ahead of Castroneves. The driver really impressing at this stage was Carlos Munoz, who after winning the Indy Lights race earlier in the day seemed to be making a bee-line for the front with a unique capacity to run the low line. In the end, it ended in tears: the young rookie pushed his luck a little too far and he spun out in turn 2 on lap 101 while in third place, nearly collecting Marco Andretti on the way and forcing Dixon to duck down low to avoid getting caught up in the incident.
Everyone pitted under the caution, with Castroneves emerging from pit lane ahead of Bourdais, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Allmendinger and Power as once again the yellows helped Chevrolet maximise their power advantage and minimise their fuel conservation deficit to the Honda runners. Dixon fell back to 12th place for the green flag on lap 109, partly as a result of the team wanting to check the back of the #9 after that earlier rear contact with Munoz at the previous restart.
The green lasted barely two laps before Justin Wilson got caught out while battling with Graham Rahal by a prominent seam in the track surface in turn 2, the car wobbling and Wilson finally unable to save it. Oriol Servia went high to avoid the developing accident, only to get flattened against the outside wall by Josef Newgarden; Wilson's spinning car was also collected by Tristan Vautier, while a scarily large chunk of debris also hit the Rahal Letterman Lanigan car of James Jakes who had been unsighted by all the wheel smoke from the incident. Simona de Silvestro ended up running through the infield to avoid the fall-out, but avoided the worst of it and lived to fight another day.
"I saw Justin getting loose and I thought I'd be able to avoid it, and I did. But Josef (Newgarden) was there as well and collected me, but it was just one of those things where it was too many of us in the same real estate," said Servià. "Nobody did anything wrong because there was nowhere to go. But it was a shame because we were dialled in to be strong at the end of the race. It was tough out there tonight – everybody was sliding around, so it was one of those nights where you wanted to get to the last pit stop and then start racing. Everybody was being patient and driving really smart, but things can always go wrong."
There was a lengthy pause for a clean-up and also to remove Wilson to an ambulance on a stretcher for transport to a local hospital for a pelvis injury and for further tests and evaluation on his back, but otherwise awake and alert. There were few cars making a move to pit lane with the exception being Will Power who was having issues with his helmet visor tear-offs that put him to the back of the lead lap, and Hunter-Reay who had to surrender second place because of a puncture from the debris out on the track.
That left Castroneves in charge for the restart on lap 127 with Bourdais, Tagliani, Kanaan and Andretti, with Pagenaud - who had been forced to make an unscheduled early pit stop after his first set of tyres were inflated to the wrong pressure - now back in-sync and up into sixth place ahead of Dixon, whose championship ambitions had actually been helped by all the attrition and further assisted when his stand-in team mate Tagliani took to the front to deprive Castroneves of the crucial position. In fact the cooler conditions of the full night time were not proving helpful to Castroneves, who slipped to sixth even as Dixon surged into the top three behind Tagliani and Andretti.
While his team mate continued to struggle during this stint, his Penske team mate Will Power flew to the front on lap 134 and surged away from Dixon, Tagliani, Andretti and Bourdais. Also on the prowl was last year's winner Ed Carpenter who had worked his way into the top six, but emphatically out of the hunt was Takuma Sato who ended up parked on pit lane on lap 144 with overheating issues.
Lap 153 saw an outbreak of fuel stops for Carpenter, Andretti and Castroneves, with Dixon, Kanaan and Bourdais in next time in with a long hold for the #7 with a hold-up on the front left. Everyone was chasing the changing conditions as nightime wore on, with a build-up of debris in the radiators causing many of the teams to worry about climbing temperatures in the cars. Power and Hunter-Reay were the last to come in, both slightly off-sync having pitted under the previous caution and making something close to 38 laps apiece on their latest tank of fuel, compared with 42 for the Honda-powered Charlie Kimball who was the latest to stop in the sequence.
Power was back in charge after the cycle completed with Dixon into second ahead of Tagliani and Castroneves once again back on the pace in fourth despite visibility problems with his visor after the recent round of set-up changes put him ahead of Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud for a settled period of running for the leaders as they girded themselves for the finish. Andretti Autosport signalled the start of the penultimate round of pit stops of the season by calling in Hunter-Reay and Macro Andretti on lap 186, after which a number of other cars trickled through pit lane.
Dixon had been in the process of making his own stop when out on track AJ Allmendinger hit the wall in turn 4 on lap 191, apparently as the result of having to take evasive action to avoid hitting Ed Carpenter who had been slowing to come on to pit road after running out of fuel. Power and Kimball were the two cars left out and having to wait for pit road to reopen, which promoted Dixon into the lead of the race for the first time of the night for the restart on lap 199.
Power immediately reclaimed the lead, but Dixon was happy enough with second place ahead of Dixon and Kimball and Castroneves stuck in fourth place seeing his remaining title hopes slip away lap after lap, especially as the attrition continued to chip away at the number of cars still on track with Graham Rahal next to fall from engine issues and then Alex Tagliani falling prey to the notorious surface seams with a spin in turn 2 on lap 210.
Roger Penske attempted to claim a strategic advantage by immediately calling Castroneves into pit lane under the caution, only to find that the pits were still closed which forced Castroneves to drive straight through and wait until the pits reopened on lap 212 at which point the entire field streamed in. "I'm sorry," a chagrined Penske radioed to Castroneves. And then to Power's pit crew: "Keep that tyre out of the way for Dixon," a reminder of the incident earlier in the season where a Penske crewman had been clipped by the #9 exiting its pit stall at Sonoma. Dixon had been penalised for that incident, butt he rules had been changed since then and Penske didn't want the title decided by cosmic karma payback if he could help it.
Kimball challenged Power for the lead a the restart on lap 216, and then Power fell away and Kimball found himself contesting the lead with none other than Castroneves, the only way left now for the Brazilian to have a chance of edging Dixon for the title. But others had designs on the top spot of the podium, with Bourdais, Hinchcliffe and Carpenter also throwing everything that they had into the fray, during the course of which Castroneves sustained critical damage to his front wing: there was no option for the #3 but to pit for a replacement, which put him a lap off the lead and his championship hopes surely now over.
Or maybe not: Dixon was not immune to overheating issues, and with 20 laps remaining he too made an unscheduled appearance on pit lane. At the same time, Sebastian Bourdais snapped into the wall at turn 3 while battling at close quarters with Will Power to throw yet another wild card into the game, as over half the field was now eliminated from the proceedings and just seven cars remained on the lead lap - and Castroneves no longer one of them.
Other than Dixon - who continued to fret about overheating - only Ed Carpenter opted for a pit stop before the race went green again on lap 236 with Kimball quickly succumbing to Power, Kanaan and Hinchcliffe as the engine in the #83 emphatically blew up at the same time as JR Hildebrand's #98 Bryan Herta Autosport car also pulled down off the track and parked on the apron to bring out the seventh caution of the night.
That left eight laps to go and just nine cars still on the track when the green came out, Power flying off into a huge lead as Carpenter leapt to second place ahead of Kanaan and Hinchcliffe, with Dixon the last man on the leap lap in fifth place and now just content to make it to the finish to seal the title. It didn't matter than he crossed the line a full 15.8s behind the race winner Will Power, the important thing was that he crossed it, and did so ahead of Castroneves. The title was his, the third in his US open wheel career, and continuing his run of winning on a five-year cycle after earlier titles in 2003 and 2008.
It was also a night of vindication for the race winner Will Power, who finally displayed that he could master an oval with the best of them. "That is the most satisfying win of my life," said Power after his win, a year on from the disastrous outing at Fontana that cost him the 2012 title when he crashed out. "I'm so stoked."
Even Helio Castroneves was still smiling at the end of the race, despite seeing his latest opportunity for a maiden IndyCar title slip through his fingers. "We did an excellent job," he said. "I has so, so much fun out there," he added, pointing out that the championship had effectively ended for him back in the disaster of the Houston double-header.
For Castroneves, it was already time to look forward to next season and the next opportunity to put his name on the Astor Cup, while for tonight all he could do was watch on as Scott Dixon took receipt of the trophy. Power knew the feelings Helio was going through all too well, having been the runner-up too many times than he likes to remember, and he was equally determined to do everything he could to rectify that in 2014. Next year both Castroneves and Power will have stiff competition from within their own team in the form of series returnee Juan Pablo Montoya, while meanwhile Ganassi will be joining Penske on the Chevrolet roster and their own team line-up will be augmented by the arrival in the squad of Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan.
Even as the confetti and the fireworks marked the crowning of this year's champion in the form of the personable 33-year-old Kiwi, the wheels were already starting to turn on next year's campaign It'll be March before you know it...Full race results available