The 2013 MAVTV 500 felt like an outlaw event – one the authorities would come and shut down at any moment [check out our In-Car Theater video].
The start was crazy, the restarts were crazier, cars worked every lane from bottom to top, drivers were routinely seen catching snap oversteer at 215mph or more, some engines glowed red-hot while others reached the point of meltdown. Some drivers fell back and marched their way to the front. And during the jaw-dropping laps that were run in waning moments of the 2013 IndyCar season, respect was earned and reputations were repaired as Charlie Kimball and Will Power left no doubt that they could get the job done under intense pressure.
IndyCar's 18-race 2014 season is also set to close under the lights at Fontana, and like the popular double-header format the series established this year, closing the championship under the toughest possible conditions – one that thrilled those in attendance – seems like another tradition to build upon.
NO ARGUMENT HERE
Scott Dixon has his third championship. He went out and earned it. More accurately, he went out and took it – in the same way Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed his first title last year. No gifts. No backing into it. No counting points. He earned it every step of the way.
Despite the relatively short 10-year span where his titles have been earned, Dixon came out on top of a very different class in 2003 during his first full season in IndyCar, did so again five years later with yet another class and, in what has easily the deepest Indy car field to date, led home a third unique field of competitors this year. That kind of versatility deserves recognition and praise.
Of the 23 or so full-time drivers he raced against in 2003, 20 have since retired or moved onto other forms of racing. Of the 25 or so full-time drivers he raced against in 2008, only 11 were still active in the 2013 championship. 12 of the full-time-ish drivers he beat this year were not competing when he earned his last title.
Different faces, different teams, different engines, CEOs, Race Directors…Dixon has demonstrated his championship-caliber talents across three distinct phases of IndyCar history.
He's the one driver in the IndyCar Series that is genuinely feared by his contemporaries at every track. Maybe, possibly…hopefully the best driver of his generation will earn the respect he's been due all along.
Thanks to his breakthrough performance at Fontana, one IndyCar driver will sleep better than the rest during the off-season.
Penske's Will Power was, by his own account, a rather miserable sod after losing last year's title to Ryan Hunter-Reay. His frustration wasn't aimed at the American – it came from falling short for a third consecutive year, and on an oval on all three occasions. He'd finish second in the standings yet again, and lamented over the crash that handed RHR the championship at Fontana.
He spent the ensuing months racked with angst and questioning his ability to contend at every round over the span of a season.
If you happened to see and hear the video of Power crossing the finish line to win the MAVTV 500 on Saturday, and also saw the in-car footage of championship-winner Scott Dixon passing under the checkered flag, it would have been easy to mistake Power as the title winner.
Dixon pumped his fist once, thanked his crew over the radio and pulled onto pit lane with a sense of calm satisfaction emanating from the cockpit. Power, who put to rest any remaining concerns that he isn't an oval racer, reacted like he'd won the lottery, filled the front straight with smoke as he did donuts, damn near climbed out of his car on the way toward Turn 1 and then did an even bigger series of donuts. When he was finished, his No. 12 Verizon Wireless Chevy had disappeared, cloaked in a giant cloud of burning Firestones.
Both drivers expressed great relief over securing their respective wins, but only Power was genuinely relieved. He climbed from the car knowing he'd quieted his critics, rewarded Roger Penske's faith and, most importantly, proved there's nothing stopping him from earning the 2014 championship.
Was that Sebastien “I have limited experience on ovals” Bourdais leading four times for a total of 35 laps at Fontana?
The driver and team no one expected to factor in the season finale led comfortably for Jay Penske's Dragon Racing outfit, surged and appeared to be in the mix for the win until an odd crash on Lap 229 ended the Frenchman's impressive run.
“I didn't have big doubts about whether I could do it or not,” he said. “Nothing has changed since when I won with Newman/Haas at Milwaukee. I know how to do this, but it's a case of getting everything right to get it done. You've got to have a feel for it and have the confidence in yourself. I've probably just had one of the best and one of the worst races on an oval at the same time.”
After reviewing the incident, Bourdais believes something broke on his car that sent him toward Will Power before veering hard to the right and into the wall.
“It was really weird; I was chasing the car in a straight line and then it just went toward Will and I tried to catch it and then the next thing you know, I was crashing,” he related. “You don't have that happen going straight unless there's something wrong. About six or seven laps before that, I had pretty good side-to-side contact with James [Hinchcliffe], and neither car moved, so I wonder if something bent because the force has to go somewhere. It's too bad because except for a couple of slow pit stops, we were really competitive. It would have been nice to go out with a win for Jay.”
It's hard to say whether Charlie Kimball would have won the MAVTV 500, but there's no denying the California native was in a position to score his second victory of the season until a trail of white smoke began to pour from his headers. His Honda engine expired while the third-year IndyCar driver was coming back to take the green flag with a dozen laps left in the 250-lap event, surrendering the lead to eventual winner Will Power.
The most impressive display to come from Kimball was proof that he has the balls and intelligence required to come out ahead at a 500-miler like Fontana. The 28-year-old, as this writer has chronicled on numerous occasions since his debut in 2011, had a nasty habit of disappearing during far too many races. Thankfully, he's fixed that problem for the most part in 2013.
Just as we witnessed at Fontana, and Mid-Ohio, and Pocono and Barber, “Charlie Murphy” is now hanging with the big dogs on a more regular basis. It's a welcome change and a harbinger of even better things to come for him next year.