Off the twisties and back to the roundy-rounds! The IZOD IndyCar Series makes the turn for home with a final pair of oval races to decide the 2011 championship, commencing this weekend at Kentucky Speedway. More Front Wing will be on-site to provide up-to-the-minute coverage of all the action and happenings at and around the track all weekend long.
Many stories are looking to unfold this weekend, and keeping track of things will be quite a chore. Starting with the competition side, lots of new and returning faces will be behind the wheels of the 29 cars looking to make Sunday’s race. Hoping to complete his first race in the IZOD IndyCar Series will be former Firestone Indy Lights winner Dillon Battistini, who was announced today as the driver of the #36 Conquest Racing entry. Battistini will join fellow Lights winner Pippa Mann and former Lights champion Wade Cunningham, both looking to start their second big-car race (and both of whom were guests on this week’s More Front Wing podcast, which can be found here).
Also returning to the Series this weekend after notable absences are some well-known faces. The biggest spotlight will be on reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon who will take the reins of the #77 Bowers & Wilkins Sam Schmidt Motorsports machine in place of Alex Tagliani, whose removal from that car was somewhere between forced and voluntary (most likely closer to the former).
Also returning this weekend is another former Indianapolis 500 champion, Buddy Rice. Rice will be piloting the #44 Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka car entered by Panther Racing. This entry is the same one that Ed Carpenter put on pole last year and, quite honestly, should have won the race with. Speaking of Carpenter, he returns this weekend for another race with Sarah Fisher Racing in the #67 machine sponsored by Dollar General. Ed has run brilliantly at this track for the last two years, losing by mere inches to Ryan Briscoe in one of INDYCAR’s greatest finishes in 2009. Ed will be back with a vengeance, and if the SFR group can put a solid effort under him, you can rest assured that Ed will drive the wheels off the car to get another top result.
Obviously, the story grabbing the most headlines through the weekend will be the championship battle between Will Power and Dario Franchitti. Power enters the weekend with an 11-point lead, and while it is mathematically possible that Power could lock up the championship here, the odds seem better that the decision will wait until the Series rolls into Las Vegas. It will be more important to see how Will Power performs on this 1.5-mile high-speed oval with Tim Cindric running his team. Will’s last two oval performances have been less than impressive, particularly his abysmal weekend at Iowa. While he was able to salvage a respectable finish at New Hampshire, it could easily be attributed to being a matter of survival as he was getting pretty well skunked for the first half of the race. On the other hand, he did actually survive and finish the race, which is more than Franchitti could say after dominating the first half but being involved in an accident with Takuma Sato on a mid-race restart. Dario has been stellar on the big ovals since his return from NASCAR in 2009, and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team will give him an edge this weekend as always.
Behind the two championship contenders, there is a long list of drivers who are hungry to notch a victory in one of the final races of the year. Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe are both hoping to find their way to the top of the podium after being mostly outshown by their teammate Power all year long. Likewise, Andretti Autosport driver Danica Patrick will desperately want to find victory lane in one of her last two INDYCAR races (as a full-time driver, at least). Patrick is the only driver of the four-car Andretti Autosport squad without a victory this year. Also look for very competitive efforts from the two-car team of Newman/Haas Racing and the three-car stable of KV Racing Technology. All five drivers have been fast this year, and with a couple of breaks during the race, any one of them could finish atop the pylon.
Off-track, the biggest story this weekend will be whether this is the swan song for the IZOD IndyCar Series at Kentucky Speedway. Admittedly, this is a bit of déjà vu for me as I recall asking the same question last year when the Series visited Chicagoland Speedway. That race did indeed drop off the schedule after that event, and the track made little effort to send the Series away with a bang. I am certainly hoping that Kentucky Speedway will put forth a better effort, and even if this is the last time the Series races here, I desperately hope INDYCAR isn’t treated like the undesired afterthought that it was last year in Chicago.
Be sure to check here at MoreFrontWing.com for daily summaries and follow along all weekend on Twitter (@MoreFrontWing) for the latest news and updates from the track. If you have questions or comments that won’t fit into 140 characters, please feel free to send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.