COUNTERPOINT: The 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series champion

Counterpoint, IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on September 23, 2010 2:36 pm
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In this edition of Counterpoint, Paul and Steph place their bets on the driver to be crowned 2010 champion.  First, Paul makes his argument in favor of Dario Franchitti, then Steph makes hers for Will Power.

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PAUL’S POINT:

Last year, Dario Franchitti went into Homestead-Miami Speedway second in points and seemingly as the underdog, only to walk away from the weekend as the IndyCar Series champion.  In my preview of the 2009 IndyCar season finale, I surmised that Dario’s relative lack of comfort on ovals, at least in relation to his mastery of road courses, would ultimately be his downfall, and I predicted that Ryan Briscoe would be the victor.

Franchitti proved me very wrong that day.  I won’t make the same mistake this year.

Dario Franchitti has been playing catch-up all year long after Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power made a mockery of the rest of the field throughout the road and street course portion of the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.  Franchitti, the 2010 AJ Foyt Oval Trophy winner, comes into the Homestead event trailing Power by 12 points and can win the championship even if Power finishes second.

However, to do so, Franchitti will need to win the pole, win the race, and lead the most laps.  And unfortunately for Dario, it’s not his style to dominate a race weekend in such fashion.  With the exception of this year’s Indianapolis 500, Dario typically drives more tactical races, rarely leading a majority of laps but seldom taking himself out of a position to fight for a victory at the end of the day.  Assuming Dario doesn’t lead the most laps in the race, he will need a bit of help to take home the championship, i.e. if Dario wins, Will Power will need to finish third or worse for Dario to claim his third title.

Ironically, Dario’s best friend and biggest help may come from none other than Will Power himself.

Since the beginning of the year, most people have felt, probably rightfully so, that Will Power’s great weakness is his lack of experience on ovals.  This has proven to indeed be the case.  If Power walks away from Miami without being crowned the Series champion, it will be because his astonishing record on the road and street courses simply could not make up for the points he gave away on the ovals.  While Dario finished second for the Mario Andretti trophy this season (albeit by a ridiculous 105 points), Will finished the oval portion of the schedule (sans Homestead, of course) in ninth place, trailing Franchitti by a whopping 88 points.  While it’s true Power has increased his oval prowess immensely in the second half of the season, mistakes still seem to plague his races, and in the season finale he won’t have the luxury of being able to make a mistake.

One crew member earlier this year told me that what makes Will so great on road courses — his ability to drive beyond the envelope — is his downfall on the ovals.  Will simply hasn’t learned where the limit is yet on an oval.  At Chicago, many want to place the blame on the crew for the fuel miscalculation that cost Will a chance to win the race.  However, many forget that Will nearly crashed very early in the race when he overdrove the car and only a miraculous and lucky save kept him in the race past lap 6.  Likewise, late in the race at Kentucky, Will Power, whether through overdriving or a simple lack of concentration, nearly put his car into the turn 4 wall while running at the front of the field.

While a driver can recover from these mistakes on a road course, they often have disastrous consequences on an oval.  In a race where one position can mean the difference between being a champion and hoping for better luck next year, drivers simply cannot afford even the slightest mistake.  To date, I have not seen enough from Will for me to believe that he can complete all 200 laps mistake-free.  Advantage: Dario.

But let’s not look at this simply from a standpoint of Will throwing away a championship.  If Dario does indeed prevail at Homestead, it will be because he has worked hard to earn it.  Because of the block scheduling of the IndyCar schedule, Power has held the points lead nearly all season due to his fast start on the road and street courses, but Dario’s three wins this year ties him for second with Helio Castroneves.  If the twisties and ovals were more intermingled, Will Power’s season would not have appeared quite so dominant from a point position standpoint, and Dario’s season would not be quite so under the radar.

Furthermore, Dario’s diversity of wins this year (the 2.5-mile superspeedway of Indianapolis, the road course at Mid-Ohio, and the 1.5-mile oval at Chicagoland) highlight the diverse skill set needed to win this championship.  Franchitti’s season exemplifies the need to excel on all types of tracks in the IZOD IndyCar Series — not to excel at only one type of track and simply survive on those remaining.

The X-factor in the quest for the championship may very well come down to the pit crews.  It was almost unthinkable just a couple years ago to suggest that a Penske driver could lose an IndyCar championship because he was “out-crewed,” but for one reason or another, the pit crews on all three Penske Racing teams seem to have lost their edge and their stars seem to have lost a bit of their sparkle.  While all three Penske drivers have experienced pit mishaps this year, none has been more unforgivable than the fuel miscalculation for Will Power at Chicagoland Speedway.  That one event completely changed the tide of the championship and let Dario back into the fight when Power could have essentially slammed the door.  Following that race, the Penske crews were mixed and matched to give Power the Penske all-star crew.

It’s impossible to predict pit errors.  But based on what we’ve seen this year, it’s plausible now — where is seemed unfathomable before — that another pit blunder by Team Penske could cost that team a championship.

When Dario wraps up his third IZOD IndyCar Series championship, he will make a very strong case for being considered the greatest American open-wheel driver of his generation and certainly the best in the Indy Racing League era.  Will Power will eventually get his championship — but not this year.

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STEPH’S POINT:

I vividly recall sitting at my computer last November on the day that Will Power was announced as a full-time driver for Team Penske and writing out a post declaring him the 2010 Series champion.

It was rejected for lack of content.

To be honest, the rejection was completely fair — I had no hard statistics whatsoever with which to back up my claim. It was based on instinct and very little more.

Many of those who joined me in my assertion pointed toward Will’s promising years in Champ Car as the source of their confidence. To me, those were significant but less immediately pertinent than the fact that Will had shown extremely well in his part-time 2009 campaign with the same team that ultimately hired him, including posting a jaw-droppingly dominant win at Edmonton.

Perhaps even more significant than that, though, was how doggedly Roger Penske and his team worked during Will’s recovery from that horrific wreck at Sonoma to secure the funding needed to put him in a seat full-time. After all, it’s well-known that once a driver has demonstrated sufficient ability to capture the Captain’s attention, he’ll stop at nothing to snap that talent up before his competitors do.

However, Will’s oval racing prowess going into this season was a giant question mark at best, and his 2010 results haven’t exactly looked stellar on paper.  Without having read Paul’s take on why he feels Dario will win the title, I have no doubt that he will offer up Will’s finishing positions on the ovals point blank as proof of his argument.  Paul’s favorite statistic, I suspect, will be the one showing that Will won the road course championship with Dario in second while Dario won the oval championship with Will a distant ninth.  (If it isn’t, it certainly should be.)

What those numbers fail to show, though, is how many of those results were lower than they should have been through no fault of Will’s own.

This season has been tarnished with uncharacteristic bad luck and bad decisions for Team Penske, and Will has taken the brunt of the damage. And, unfortunately, the most costly missteps have occurred more often on ovals where they’ve hurt Will the most. Consider the following:

  • At Kansas, an issue with a sticking fuel nozzle delayed him in his first pit stop and he never had the opportunity to recover;
  • At Indy, Will was fighting for the lead until he left the pits on lap 37 with his fuel nozzle still attached (incidentally, he also reported an issue with the overtake assist system about halfway through the race, and he still finished the highest of the three Penske drivers in eighth place);
  • At Texas, Will spent time in the pits early to remove some debris he had collected; he had recovered from that and was running in third, but the incident put him off-sequence and he was forced to pit for a splash-and-go with four laps remaining;
  • At Chicagoland, Will ran up front all day only to find out that his crew underfilled him on his final pit stop at lap 172, forcing him to refuel late in the event;
  • At Kentucky, Will again was consistently up front throughout the race (though he did have a mid-race bobble that he kept off the wall), but he was ultimately among the top-five group that needed to pit for a splash-and-go on lap 196.

Meanwhile, Will’s qualifying efforts on ovals were nothing short of stellar.  Through the seven we’ve run so far this season, Will has started once from pole (Iowa), twice from second (Indy and Kentucky), three times from third (Texas, Chicago, and Motegi), and once from seventh (Kansas).

And of those same seven races, Will led laps in five of them.

This hardly tells the story of a man who can’t drive on ovals, does it?

It may have taken Will until Motegi to finally finish on the podium at an oval, but it wasn’t due to any lack of skill on his part.  In fact, if it wasn’t for the problems noted above, it’s quite likely that we’d be going into Homestead with the championship already decided.

However, with only the final race left, Will’s points lead — as narrow as it may be — affords him the smallest bit of an edge that may ultimately be all he needs.  Despite the fact that he has occasionally been better than Dario on the ovals this season, at Homestead, he doesn’t need to be better than Dario — he only needs to be not much more than slightly worse.  This puts Will under just a little less pressure and affords him just a little more margin for error.  So long as Will himself is confident that he has the skill he needs to get it done — and he has every right to be — this tiny advantage might well be the one thing that makes the difference.

Or the stars could finally align for Will and let him just win the darned thing.

Either way, the finish will be close, but that’s only due to more bad luck having come Will’s way this year than good, and he will ultimately end up on top.

Furthermore, while Dario is unquestionably one of the most talented open-wheel racers of our time, it won’t be long before Will’s record proves him to be just as great.  And while Dario appears to be approaching its twilight of his career, Will is just entering his zenith.

So, not only is Will going to win the title this year, but make no mistake about it: he will absolutely do it again.

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