With six of the last seven races on road and street circuits, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to 1.5-mile ovals for the final two rounds of the 2011 season. Sunday's Kentucky Indy 300 is only the second 1.5-mile test of the season, and first full 300-miler as Texas was split into a doubleheader event the night of June 11.
Will Power took the championship lead over Dario Franchitti by 11 points after his runner-up finish two weeks ago in Motegi, Japan. Franchitti's contact with three other drivers sent him to the back of the field, but he recovered to eighth by the checkered flag to minimize the damage.
On ovals, they both trail Scott Dixon for the A.J. Foyt Trophy. Motegi winner Dixon leads Franchitti 181-164 with Power an additional 19 points behind.
Dixon faces elimination from the overall championship this weekend, at 59 points behind Power. If he can't close to within 53, his title chances are officially over.
Power and Franchitti have been closer on ovals than it might appear on the surface, as Power looks to secure his first title. The Australian actually holds a qualifying edge, 7.67 to 7.83, from the six oval races this season. Granted, that number includes Franchitti's draw of 28th at the second Texas race after winning Race 1, but it also features Power's 17th at the Milwaukee Mile and 13th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The Indianapolis 500 was the only event where both drivers finished outside the top 10. Where Franchitti gained his oval points advantage most was at Iowa, with a fifth when Power crashed. That was negated when the reverse happened at New Hampshire; Franchitti crashed and Power still took a needed fifth even though his “angry birds” display was the major talking point post race.
New Hampshire winner Ryan Hunter-Reay had had a forgettable oval season prior to Loudon, with an eighth, ninth and three finishes of 19th or worse in the other starts. Still, Kentucky figures to offer a good shot for either Hunter-Reay or any of his Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Mike Conway at breaking the Penske and Ganassi juggernaut on 1.5-mile ovals.
Hoping for a good result this weekend are Helio Castroneves, the 2010 Kentucky winner, and Ed Carpenter, the 2010 Kentucky polesitter and twice defending runner-up finisher. While Carpenter's Sarah Fisher effort showed impressive pace in qualifying at both Indianapolis and Texas, it's been largely a struggle from there this season.
The battle for fourth in the standings is also particularly interesting from a statistical breakdown. Oriol Servia (Newman/Haas Racing) has a 44-point lead on Tony Kanaan (KV Racing Technology) overall, and is 20 points up on ovals. Kanaan (82, RIGHT), however, has the strongest qualifying average in the field from the six ovals.
While Kanaan has only once started worse than sixth on ovals, Servia has four oval starts of 10th or worse. The continuing rapport improvement between Kanaan and new engineer John Dick will aid his progress this weekend.
Their teammates have impressive oval statistics as well. Takuma Sato (KVRT) has the fourth highest average qualifying on ovals, including a pole at Iowa, and James Hinchcliffe's (NHR) average grid spot is just behind Dixon.
“Hinch” sits 14 points behind JR Hildebrand in the Rookie of the Year standings. Hildebrand's Panther Racing team tends to run strongest on ovals, and JR becomes “the Pink Panther” this weekend as the team sports a new pink camouflage livery to raise awareness of breast cancer in the month of October. No word on whether Hildebrand plans to grow a Peter Sellers mustache to match.…
A number of drivers make their returns to the 29-car field this weekend. Dan Wheldon is first and foremost, with his somewhat controversial appointment replacing Alex Tagliani at Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Others include Alex Lloyd (oval duty for Dale Coyne Racing), Buddy Rice (Panther Racing), Townsend Bell (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Pippa Mann (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and Wade Cunningham (Sam Schmidt Motorsports). Indy Lights alumnus Dillon Battistini is scheduled to make his series debut for Conquest Racing.
• The Kentucky Indy 300 airs live on Versus beginning at 2 p.m. ET