The contrast with Ryan Hunter-Reay has been intriguing. They may be on similar points totals, but Will and Ryan have reached that point by very different routes: Ryan has been on full attack mode and Will has been in defensive mode. In fact, I'd say Ryan has been very aggressive this year, and there have been times when he's been quite lucky to get away with it. But then again, it's his first championship battle at this level of racing and in those circumstances, you do try and ride your luck for as long as you can.
In previous years, Ryan had certainly shown flashes of this kind of form, but had never come close to putting a whole season together. This year he's been strong on a variety of different tracks, and that's also a great credit to Andretti Autosport. I still have a lot of friends there, and in recent years I've seen them wandering the paddocks with the weight of the world on their shoulders; AA have a ton of good people there, but somehow the results just weren't there, certainly not on a consistent basis. Now they're on an up-cycle and that's been good to see. Pace-wise, Ryan hasn't been at Will's level, but he's made the most of what he's got, driven some really good races and, like I say, he's been bloody aggressive!
So now it's time to see who's the champion, and I think it's pointless to say who I think deserves to win: Let's stress again that I'm a firm believer that the driver can't be regarded as separate from the team. I think the driver/team combinations that deserve to be in the running for the championship each year are the ones who are there, and that the driver/team combination that prevails and wins the title is the one who most deserves it.
I think it's important that both Will and Ryan drive in the same way that got them into this showdown situation, the way that comes naturally to them. I think the experience of fighting for a championship before does help Will and Penske. And while I think it's worth noting that the No. 12 pit crew have made much fewer mistakes this year – Sonoma notwithstanding! – the real key will be how they handle a championship showdown situation. That's when the pressure is on, especially in the final pit stop and if Ryan's crew have already done their final stop and done it well….
In his favor, Ryan has scored his wins on a variety of tracks this year, including ovals. But I think – no, I know – Will can drive ovals well, too. Sure, at Iowa he pinched down on EJ Viso and took them both out, but he was very strong in Texas, for example, and I think the cars will be handling like that again at Fontana.
Well, I hope my car isn't handling like it did in Texas. Dear God! We had to take so many turns of front wing out, and disconnect the rear anti-roll bar and it still didn't handle! The following week, I saw Eddie Jones [Rubens Barrichello's engineer] – and he's a man who's not known for coddling his drivers. But he said to me, “Well done!” and I said, “What, for winning Indy?” and he said, “No, for hanging onto your car in Texas and keeping it off the wall.” Coming from him, that was high praise indeed!
Anyway, my point is, the strakes on the underbody will not be allowed at Fontana so there will be less downforce than some hoped for and so it becomes a handling track. Aside from that, it's also quite bumpy and none of us know the Auto Club Speedway particularly well, despite the test sessions there.
Basically, if you miss it on setup, you will miss by a mile. Being the championship leader, Will can be a little more cautious than Ryan – but not too cautious because otherwise, in a field as close as the 2012-era IZOD IndyCar Series, you will get swamped and you'll go a lap down before you know it. Remember, everyone else will be just going flat out for the win with all to play for. Will and Ryan will need to be doing quite a balancing act, because there may also be the desire factor – who is prepared to gut it out if he gets a bad yellow or has a pit lane problem and has to climb through from the rear of the field? And this is crucial: which of them can best keep his head in those circumstances? Interesting stuff…
What's certain is that the spectators at Auto Club Speedway will get their money's worth. Think about it: two drivers going for the championship, 25 drivers going for the win, a 500-mile race, a variety of tactics, an oval wing package that demands real driving, ever-changing track conditions as evening turns to darkness…It should be a hell of a spectacle!
But while I'm intrigued to see who my successor is as champion, I'm not so interested that I'll be asking Chip for updates on the radio during the race. No: I want to be standing in Victory Lane with the Target Chip Ganassi Racing boys, and then congratulating the new champ.
See you at the track.