(Note: This article originally appeared on INDYCAR Nation, but you know how I am with the Mazda Road to Indy. I'm reprinting it here as we get ready for a tremendous Lights showdown. Make sure to support INDYCAR Nation, too, and check out both this week's championship previews over there--the IndyCar preview will be up later this week).
While some series might consider themselves lucky to have one close championship fight in the last race of the season, INDYCAR goes into Auto Club Speedway this weekend with two such contests. First on Saturday, we’ll see if Sage Karam can hold off Gabby Chaves for the Firestone Indy Lights crown in the Lefty’s Kids Club 100. Right after that, it’s Helio Castroneves attempting to pull out a comeback victory over Scott Dixon in the MAVTV500.
The Lights battle is actually a bit closer than the IndyCar title fight; Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Sage Karam holds only a 16-point lead over teammate Gabby Chaves. What’s defined these drivers this year is minimizing big mistakes. Karam capitalized on the schedule’s string of oval races, winning at Milwaukee and Iowa, to propel himself to the top, while Chaves put in podium after podium before his victory at Mid-Ohio. The pair finished 1-2 at Houston, and avoided the bad luck and mistakes of the other Lights competitors. Now, they’ll face off for the chance at a scholarship and a shot at moving up to IndyCar.
Karam and Chaves are 18 and 20, respectively, and both are in their first season of Lights. What sort of an IndyCar opportunity they’d see next year with a Lights championship under their belt (Indy 500-only, partial season, etc.) remains to be seen, but both clearly still have even more talent they’ll grow into with time.
While the points favor Karam, and he should be at home on an oval, Chaves has at times appeared to be the more polished driver this year. That’s not a slight on Karam, who has exceeded all expectations in his first Lights year as that youngest driver in that series. However, this race, and by extension, this championship, could very easily come down to who makes the first mistake—and who stays out of trouble. Anyone who has seen Indy Lights at Indianapolis will attest that it can very quickly become a melee.
Meanwhile, the rest of the field will present their own challenges, with Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Munoz likely quite eager to end the season on a high note before pursuing their own IndyCar dreams next year. The field will also expand with the return of Kyle O’Gara, running his second Lights race of the year. If one of the two championship contenders falters early, they’ll have some fighting to do to get back up front—and in a 50 lap race, even the smallest setback could mean disaster.
Will it be Sage Karam or Gabby Chaves as your Firestone Indy Lights champ? Either way, you’ll know your 2013 Lights title winner earned it over an extremely competitive hard-fought season— and their finale at Fontana promises more of the same.