As the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Season comes to a conclusion this weekend, the biggest story is obviously the battle for the championship as Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power clings to a 17-point advantage over Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. Even the slightest bobble by Power can open the door for Hunter-Reay to become the first American IZOD IndyCar Series champion since Sam Hornish, Jr. claimed the title in 2006.
For each of the title contenders, getting to this point has been a long and winding road, highlighted by ups and downs all season long.
For Power, a slow start at St. Pete was followed by three straight victories prior to the Indianapolis 500. However, a mid-season spat of misfortune opened the door for Hunter-Reay, and the American veteran kicked the door in with a three-race victory streak of his own, starting at the Milwaukee Mile in June.
Once his luck ran out, though, it was tough sledding for Hunter-Reay. Mechanical gremlins and the receiving end of a poorly conceived pass by Alex Tagliani at Sonoma put Hunter-Reay in a desperate situation entering the Baltimore Grand Prix, trailing Power by a distant 37 points. Like a champion fighter, Ryan delivered a spectacular performance when he needed to most, pulling off the victory in splendid fashion while Power struggled home to a sixth place finish after a series of questionable strategic calls by his team.
In order to avoid a championship collapse for the third year in a row, the goal for Power is actually quite simple: he needs to finish the 500 miles. If Power can simply finish the race, he has been good enough on ovals that he will likely be running at or near the front of the field.
His greatest weakness on ovals, especially when the championship has been on the line, has been getting to the finish. In 2010, Power found the fourth-turn wall at Homestead-Miami Speedway while battling Dario Franchitti for the title. Last year, in what turned out to be the season finale at Kentucky Speedway, Power again failed to finish the race when an early pit road incident knocked him from contention. Both Will and his Verizon #12 crew will need to be on top of their game for 250 laps to avoid the pitfalls that seem to constantly befall that team.
For Ryan Hunter-Reay, the goal is also simple. He must not only finish the race, but he needs to finish in the top three to have a realistic shot of earning the title. If Hunter-Reay should finish fourth, Will Power would only need to finish 14th to secure the championship, not accounting for any bonus points. Once again, though, those bonus points (one for earning the pole position and two for leading the most laps) are of critical importance as those points represent positions in the final results, and on a high-speed, high-banked oval, several positions can be separated by just the blink of an eye.
So, what are the keys to finishing well in Saturday night’s MAVTV 500? First and foremost will be staying out of trouble. Both title contenders will need to maintain laser-like focus over the course of 500 miles to get to the finish.
Secondly, their pit crews will need to perform flawlessly on at least six pits stops. With the average INDYCAR oval event requiring two or three pit stops, crews will be tested in a way they rarely see outside of the Indianapolis 500. The smallest mistake on pit lane can drop their driver several spots in the running order and expose them to more dangers in mid-pack racing than they might otherwise be subjected to. Additionally, a hiccup on pit lane can force their driver to exit amongst a gaggle of other cars and lead to disaster as happened when Will Power made contact with an exiting Ana Beatriz last year at Kentucky. Pit stops will be numerous, action-packed, and stressful for the six people going over the wall. Not a single one of them can afford a mistake.
Engine reliability could also be a factor in this race. With the return of engine competition, both Honda and Chevrolet have pushed themselves beyond the limit at times this season, and a failure for either Power or Hunter-Reay this weekend could put a period on their hopes for a title. Both contenders will be powered by Chevrolet engines, and both will accept a 10-spot grid penalty to start the race with a fresh powerplant. So far this season, Hunter-Reay has seen more frustration from an engine reliability standpoint than has Power. One has to wonder if Power’s time is coming.
Perhaps the biggest unknown going into Saturday night’s race is how the changing weather conditions will affect the track and handling characteristics of the cars. With a 5:30 pm local time start, the beginning half with be sunny and hot. However, as the sun sets and the temperatures drop, the track will change drastically. Teams must be able to accurately guess the effect these changes will have on their cars and effectively set up the cars to adapt to changes throughout the race.
Behind the championship contenders, the other 24 drivers will be looking to end the 2012 season on a high note. For many drivers, this is the last chance to find success in a season full of change. For others, it is the last opportunity to impress future employers and prove their worth for a ride in 2013. Look for drivers like Ryan Briscoe, Oriol Servia, Graham Rahal, and Takuma Sato to push hard throughout the entire event weekend. They will race the title contenders fairly and cleanly, but don’t expect any of these guys to pull over for them. They are racing for themselves and won’t back down just because either of the title contenders are racing nearby.
We are More Front Wing look forward to bringing you all the action from Auto Club Speedway this weekend. Be sure to follow us all weekend on Twitter as we bring you constant live updates from practice, qualifying, and the race itself. We look forward to hearing from you on Twitter, on Facebook, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.