Well, we’re here. It’s just about time to determine whether Ryan Hunter-Reay or Will Power will be our 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champ. Saturday, at 8:30pm (ET) on NBC Sports, everything will be decided at the MAVTV 500. Between now and then, check out these 10 big stories, as we prepare to celebrate a new Series champion:
1) The Title Battle, Of Course.
On one side, we have Will Power, a road and street course guru, seemingly always just a step or single race away from the championship, and falling just short. On the other, we have Ryan Hunter-Reay, an All-American driver who could bring Andretti Autosport all the way “back” by pulling off the comeback for the title. You have people who have staked their preferred outcome not only on which driver they prefer, but on like/dislike of Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, and probably a dozen other things.
So, earlier in the week, I predicted Will Power will be champion—not because I thought he’d dominate, but because the math is on his side. A 17-point lead means Ryan Hunter-Reay basically needs to have a tremendous performance; that’s not necessarily true for Power. I hope the race comes down to a titanic endurance battle, but there’s never a guarantee any championship will come down to that. But if RHR qualifies well, and looks strong in the early going, Power will have to sweating it out more than just a bit. If Ryan Hunter-Reay has another inspired race like Baltimore, he can pull this off. But I still think the odds rest with Power. If he doesn’t win this time, then that “Can’t Win The Big One” label becomes not lightly glued, but solidly engraved.
2) The Other Championship Battle
Don’t forget, Firestone Indy Lights has an even closer championship battle with rookie Frenchmen Tristan Vautier holding a slim 7-point lead over Esteban Guerrieri going into this weekend’s finale. Guerrieri would seem to be the favorite on the oval, but Vautier has proven he can hold his own, with fine oval results as well. Frankly, this might be the hardest prediction of the weekend, if for no other reason than it’s Indy Lights, which means someone is going to attempt to go from P12 to P1 in the first corner with a banzai maneuver and cause everyone watching to close their eyes in terror. It would not surprise me if half the field was taken out early. There is just no way to know, but Lights oval races are generally about 80% Entertainment, 20% Sheer White-Knuckle Terror. If you were at Carb Day this year for the Freedom 100, you are nodding your head emphatically at this point.
3) We’re #22! We’re #22!
Currently, the Ed Carpenter racing #20 car clings to a small lead over Sarah Fisher Hartman’s Racing #67 for the 22nd and final presumptive TEAM money spot for next year. A payout of 1.2 million isn’t enough to fund an entire season, but especially with smaller teams, it sure doesn’t hurt any. With Josef Newgarden needing 23 points to have Fisher leapfrog Carpenter for the final spot, it will take the sort of start-to-finish quality effort we simply have yet to see this year in a mistake and mechanical issue-plagued season. For his part, Carpenter’s hardly been gangbusters, but everyone knows he can more than hold his own on ovals. The odds would seem to be against SFHR, but they’ve stunned us before. We’ll see if they have another late-season surprise for us, and if Newgarden can finally grab that quality result that has been alternatingly so close and so far this year.
4) One More Entry
Sebastian Saavedra will be back in the #17 car for AFS Racing and Andretti Autosport this upcoming weekend. His results weren’t ideal, but he definitely seemed more comfortable in the car compared to his 2011 results. If he can secure a nice finish this weekend, it would be a nice confidence boost for whatever he and the AFS Racing team have planned together for 2013.
5) Rumors, Rumors Everywhere
Of course, with the season almost over, expect to hear no shortage of silly season rumors, and probably even a few cracks in the façade of unhappy relationships in the paddock. The biggest question mark still has to be Ryan Hunter-Reay, and whether or not he’ll re-up with Andretti Autosport, or go with the tempting promise of the presumably open Penske Racing seat. It’s a difficult decision, and we can expect the hardcore among us to interpret every statement, physical gesture, meeting, and possibly meal composition as a hint as to just what his decision will be. My hunch is he’s sticking with Andretti, but I could be so very, very wrong.
6) One More Engine Fight For The Road (Well, Oval)
Chevy beat Honda pretty handily in the engine manufacturer battle, but it isn’t as if Honda didn’t get their licks in. At wins at speedways like Indy and Texas, Honda’s engine has proven fully capable of blasting down the straights and giving a fine account of itself. It’s a good reason to favor Honda drivers to do well this weekend, but it’s also a 500-mile event. That means there’s no doubt we’re going to see some engines let go, and a grenading engine could easily impact the outcome of the race and championship. Endurance has been highlighted at events such as Indy this year; we’ll see which engine gets final bragging rights on that account.
7) Hey, May I Have A Good Weekend? Please?
For every driver that’s had a great 2012 campaign (paging Mssrs. Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay, for example), there’s a driver or team that simply hasn’t had the desired results this season. Let me ask you this: which driver winning would be the biggest “end on a high note” for them? Josef Newgarden? Marco Andretti? Ed Carpenter? Perhaps (as crazy as it sounds) our 500 winner, Dario Franchitti?
If you’ve ever played any sort of sport, you know how brutal an offseason can be when it ends with a big loss or disappointment. Even if you’re great at blocking that out, it still nags at you through the long winter months. We’ll see if perhaps an unlikely winner can give themselves and/or their team a nice mental boost heading into the fall and winter seasons.
8) USF2000 Finishes Up, Too
Unlike Star Mazda, which ends its season at Road Atlanta next month, USF2000 will also finish up its season this weekend , with a pair of races at Virginia International Raceway September 14-15. Matthew Brabham has a 41-point lead over teammate Spencer Pigot, though both have been lights-out with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing this season. As one of the few drivers to challenge them this year Belardi Auto Racing’s Scott Anderson will be attempting to finish his season on a very strong note as well. Several of these drivers could very well make the jump to Star Mazda next year, and not just our series champ. Call me a traditionalist, but I have to admit, there’s just something nice about having a Brabham involved in INDYCAR, even on the ladder.
9) Livery Update
There aren’t any big changes to liveries this week, but there are still a few minor notes to mention: Tony Kanaan will have the primarily blue-and-white Mouser Electronics/GEICO sponsorship, while Helio Castroneves will have AAA and Verizon on the side of his car. Ryan Briscoe will be back in the always-popular IZOD livery, while Sebastian Saavedra will mix his Colombia sponsorship with the usual AFS Racing yellow-and-red scheme. For the ever-changing Panther/DRR entry, WIX Filters will again be on the sidepod for Oriol Servia.
10) Last Call
The end of any season marks the last time time at least a couple of drivers will race with their current team, but expect a fairly unsettled landscape just as soon as the checkered flag waves over Fontana. Ryan Briscoe is very possibly making his last start for Penske Racing, and we already mentioned Ryan Hunter-Reay’s potential situation. Rubens Barrichello is almost certainly gone from KV Racing, and EJ Viso may be changing teams (or starting one?) as well. Graham Rahal makes his curtain call for Ganassi, and James Jakes faces an uncertain future.
However this last race of the season plays out, the offseason will again be a time for meetings and partings. Every race, every season only comes around once, and this particular blend of drivers and teams will never be out on track in precisely the same configuration again. There’s something humbling in catching a moment in time in racing, knowing you’re seeing something that won’t come again. I’m not ready for the season to be over, but I feel blessed to have been able to be a part of it all as a fan.