VIDEO: RACER's Robin Miller, Marshall Pruett and Barracuda Racing's JR Hildebrand preview the MAVTV 500.
It's not quite as dramatic as Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, but Helio's Hunt for the Red No. 9 in October will require some deft maneuvering on his part. Castroneves, with his three Indy 500 victories, continues to seek his first Indy car championship – an honor that has been out of his reach since graduating from Indy Lights to CART in 1998.
For championship leader Scott Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Honda, the 25-point lead he carries into Saturday night's IndyCar Series title decider will have Castroneves' Team Penske engineers busily scanning through their spreadsheets, calculating where the 38-year-old needs to finish to prevent Dixon from earning his third IndyCar crown.
With 50 points up for grabs for the winner, another point for pole, one for all those who lead a lap and two points for the person who leads the most laps, a maximum of 54 points is on offer.
Dixon, at 546 points, has a modest margin over his Brazilian rival, who sits on 521 points. Come Saturday night, he'll have 500 miles of racing and two motivated teammates to help him bridge the gap, and by looking at the most likely points scenarios, the challenge he faces is revealed.
It's hard to say whether Castroneves will earn the pole, lead a lap or lead the most laps, and the same is true for Dixon, so let's start from the simplest scenario: what a win and 50 points for the driver of the No. 3 Chevy would mean in the championship chase.
A victory by Castroneves would move him to 571 points, where Dixon would need to finish seventh, earning 572 points, to secure the title.
A win by HCN with Dixie finishing no better than eighth hands HCN the championship by one point.
Second for Castroneves, which nets 561 points, would allow Dixon to finish 15th, also worth, 561 points, where he'd win on a tie with four victories to the lone win by Castroneves.
Second by HCN and 16th by Dixie is what the Penske team is looking for.
Third for Castroneves, 556 points, would allow Dixon to place 20th where he'd win on the same tie-breaker.
Third for HCN and 21st by Dixie gives Penske the title.
Fourth for Castroneves, 553 points, lets Dixon finish down in 23rd and still win on a tie-breaker.
If Dixon is 24th, HCN's the champion.
Fifth for Castroneves, 551 points, lets Dixon finish 25th and he once again wins on a tie-breaker. 25th through 33rd pays the same number of points, meaning Dixon could finish last and would still receive 551 points.
As obvious as it sounds, anything less than a win by Castroneves put Dixon at ease. With Helio finishing P1, Dixon neutralizes the win by securing P7. Drop Helio to P2, and Dixon only needs to place P15. P3 for Helio is negated with P20 for Dixon, etc.
Castroneves, depending on where Dixon finishes, needs to finish fifth or better to have a solid shot at winning the championship, and even if Dixon has a horrible race, Helio will need to keep the hammer down the entire time.
Running through every possible scenario between the two drivers would be a waste of time, but it is interesting to see how adding some of the bonus points into the mix alters their respective needs.
If Castroneves can run the table and earn 54 points, giving him 575, Dixon needs to place fifth, up from seventh, to score 576 points and hold onto the title.
If Dixon can earn at least one point – possibly for leading a lap – he can settle for sixth, worth 575 points, where he wins on the tie-breaker.
Factor in both drivers will likely lead at some point, that Castroneves was well clear of the field at the recent test in Fontana, and that Dixon is the best in the field on saving fuel, and the MAVTV 500 could set the stage for another thrilling championship duel. Their respective strengths will influence the outcome of the race, barring something silly taking place, and they both know that racing hard – especially if they want to win convincingly – is the only option.