And so it ends. The 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season, the current Dallara-Honda-Firestone package and respective championship chases all end in the city of lights. Las Vegas is known for both elation and heartbreak, and the polar ends of the spectrum should be in full force this weekend.
IndyCar and Las Vegas have had, much like celebrity marriages, an on-and-off relationship since Las Vegas Motor Speedway first appeared in 1996. Five IndyCar-sanctioned events took place from 1996 through 2000 (ABOVE, LEFT), while Champ Car made three appearances – twice at LVMS (2004 and '05) and again on a street course south of downtown in 2007.
The end result is a hodgepodge of drivers who have previous Las Vegas experience on either circuit and some experienced ones without. Only four – Davey Hamilton, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy – have prior starts at LVMS. Hamilton is the only driver in the record 34-car field who started all five prior IndyCar-sanctioned events at LVMS.
Although Will Power (RIGHT), Graham Rahal (Champ Car), JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe and Simona de Silvestro (Atlantic) started on the street course in 2007 (Power won the Champ Car race, his first career victory), they are all rookies at LVMS.
The stars have never aligned for drivers like Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, whose careers span back to 1997 and '98, and don't count a single open-wheel start in Las Vegas between them.
The unpredictability of the first new or revived 1.5-mile oval since Kansas in 2001, with a record number of cars and most drivers having nothing to lose should see a fitting sendoff to the season.
“You just have to be smart. When you get to the last race, guys who haven't won are going to try to win everything,” says Tony Kanaan of KV Racing Technology-Lotus. “People take more chances. You can't predict anything.”
Obviously, the showdown between Franchitti and Power takes center stage. The 18-point gap between them can be swallowed with a Power win and Franchitti finishing fourth or worse, in simplest terms. Franchitti's clinching number drops to ninth if Power is second, and for Power to have any chance he has to finish at least sixth. The Australian has already said he feels “no pressure” and is focused purely on winning, nothing else.
Scott Dixon can't finish any worse than third in the final standings and has a remote chance at second, while Oriol Servia has clinched fourth regardless. The tightest battle within the top 10 is for fifth, with Kanaan two points up on Ryan Briscoe.
“I'm not going be in a position to win the championship, but I'm still in with a shot to be best after those guys,” Kanaan said. “That's what we're working toward.”
American hopes Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal should maintain their top-10 positions and look for a bright end to their seasons. Rahal hopes to join the two Andretti Autosport drivers as race winners in 2011, driving for the improving Ganassi satellite squad.
Then there is the battle for 10th. Danica Patrick leads Helio Castroneves by two points, with 15th-placed Alex Tagliani just 18 points behind Patrick. Various stories are in play here – this is Patrick's finale, Castroneves' last chance at a win in 2011 and Tagliani's return after being benched for Kentucky. And that doesn't even include the other three drivers who could get P10 – rookies Hinchcliffe and Hildebrand and Takuma Sato.
“In our situation, we're not in a good position (in the points),” Castroneves said. “So we can take quite a lot of chances to win the race, and that's the goal.”
Castroneves has a win in every season since joining Team Penske in 2000. With that streak firmly on the line this weekend, the Brazilian has the added dilemma that his win would not help Power's title chances.
The Hinchcliffe-Hildebrand battle for Rookie of the Year comes to a head. Either would be a deserving winner, and they have more than proven their worth for Newman/Haas and Panther Racing this season.
And then there are the part-timers, with Dan Wheldon's $5 million quest in the GoDaddy IndyCar Challenge fully in play. If Wheldon wins from last on the 34-car grid for owner Sam Schmidt (who won the 1999 race at Las Vegas), the prize will be split between the Indy 500 champ and a lucky fan.
The other non-regulars: Tracy's back for the first time since Edmonton; Hamilton and Jay Howard make their first starts since Texas; Wade Cunningham looks to improve on a solid seventh in Kentucky; Townsend Bell switches to Dad's Root Beer colors for Dreyer & Reinbold; Pippa Mann looks to make her third start; Buddy Rice rolls off again for Panther and Tomas Scheckter is riding the high line for Sarah Fisher Racing.
Kentucky winner Ed Carpenter looks for two in a row while Sebastian Saavedra resumes with Conquest after a two-race hiatus.
• The IZOD INDYCAR World Championships airs live on ABC Sunday, with the green flag set for 3:45pm ET.