The IZOD IndyCar Series draws the curtain on its season with its first trip to Auto Club Speedway since 2005 for the MAVTV 500. After the buildup all week, it comes down to a 500-mile shootout between Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, as either will be crowned the series' first new champion since Dario Franchitti in 2007. Fittingly, it's Franchitti they're replacing as king of the series – the Scotsman will not have a four-peat of successive titles, while his Target Chip Ganassi Racing is denied a chance at a fifth in a row for a second time. The storylines, then, going into Fontana:
TITLE POINTS BREAKDOWN – Seventeen points is a lot closer than it could have been had Hunter-Reay not scored at Baltimore, but still he'll need help if he is to overcome the deficit and take his first title.
Power can win the title with a win or second-place finish. He can clinch with third place in at least three different scenarios, one being if Hunter-Reay was to win and score the pole. And if Power achieves either the most-laps led bonus (two points) or the maximum bonus of three points (pole, most laps led), he could clinch with fourth, even if Hunter-Reay were to win.
Any Power finish out of the top five with a Hunter-Reay win would give the American the crown. Meanwhile, any Hunter-Reay finish between third and sixth could shift the title into RHR's hands, but that would take Power finishing anywhere from 10th on back to overcome the gap.
The 10-point margin between first and second is key. A win offers 50 points, with 40 for second, 35 for third, 32 for fourth and 30 for fifth. Points drop by two down to 20 in 10th, and by one from there until 18th – that stays at 12 until 24th and a minimum of 10 points can be scored for starting the race but finishing 25th or 26th.
AERO RIDE – The cars will look similar to how they did at Indianapolis, but the (almost) universally agreed upon talking point after testing is that they will handle more like Texas, with tire degradation and a lack of aero grip present throughout a run and finding better mechanical grip more important.
IndyCar vp of technology Will Phillips confirmed Thursday the series will take off the underbody strakes, thus making the cars even more of a challenge to handle and, like Texas, putting the driving firmly back in the hands of the drivers and not the engineers.
A handful of tweets after testing on Wednesday: “A fairly intense days testing @ACSupdates, everyone moving around searching for grip, it should be a good race,” Franchitti said. From Ryan Briscoe: “Fun day testing until I bumped the wall late in the day. Long runs were awesome with cars running all sorts of different lines out there. I think everyone watching Sat night will be in for a real treat of good hard racing.”
OVAL STATS – Less heralded but also on the line this weekend is the A.J. Foyt Trophy for the top-scoring driver on ovals this year. Thirteen drivers have a mathematical possibility but realistically only the top eight of those could walk away with the title. Even then, the best chance comes for those in the top three.
As it stands now, Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan (LEFT) are tied with 136 with Hinchcliffe third at 121. Eight points then separates Helio Castroneves, Justin Wilson, Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe and Graham Rahal, with Castroneves eight back of Hinchcliffe for third.
There are a few other key oval stats to note. Out of 12 combined oval starts this year, the Andretti Autosport trio of full-time drivers has 11 top-10 starts. Team Penske's trio has nine, and the Chip Ganassi Racing quartet has six from 16. KV Racing Technology has been particularly strong in oval qualifying with a combined seven top-10 grid spots from Kanaan, E.J. Viso and Rubens Barrichello thus far.
Starting positions won't matter as much, with a number of drivers likely to take 10-spot grid penalties for engine changes.
Of the 26 drivers entered, only eight have prior race experience on a 2-mile oval. Series veterans Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, Ed Carpenter, Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani have competed at both Auto Club and Michigan Speedway, while Marco Andretti also has two prior Michigan starts.
The two most dominant lap leaders on ovals this year have been Dixon (262 laps led) and Castroneves (183), but neither has an oval win to their name. No one else has led more than 99, and that honor falls to Hunter-Reay. Power, by contrast, has only been out front on ovals once this season, for 24 laps at Texas.
OTHER KEY BATTLES –
Pagenaud's fourth podium of the year has netted him a 15-point lead on Briscoe for fifth in points, although back-to-back podiums have lifted the Australian from ninth to sixth in the standings. Hinchcliffe and Kanaan are separated by only two points for seventh and have an outside shot at the top five, but would need to rely on bad luck in front of them to make up the gap (31 from Pagenaud to Hinchcliffe).
Graham Rahal (ABOVE) is 28 points clear of Rubens Barrichello for 10th in points, while just 24 markers cover 11th to 17th. It would take a tough day for Rahal to realistically open the door for anyone else to break through, and judging by how well he ran at Texas, that might be even more of a long shot.
It's the last chance for Josef Newgarden, back after missing Baltimore, and Simona de Silvestro to score that elusive first top-10 finish of the season. Newgarden's had flashes of brilliance throughout the year without a complete weekend with no issues from start to finish, while de Silvestro has persevered and maintained a brave face despite being saddled with the inferior Lotus engine all season.
By starting, de Silvestro will be able to overtake Sebastien Bourdais in the standings – although Bourdais has started only 11 of 14 races and de Silvestro has started them all.
CONWAY OUT, CUNNINGHAM IN – There was some cryptic chatter on Twitter Wednesday about certain drivers being offered seats for Fontana – Townsend Bell made it public and at least one other driver was known to be in the frame for a seat at Auto Club Speedway. Wade Cunningham later tweeted he was packing his bags en route to the track and, as it turned out, he's the one in a one-off, last-minute opportunity.
Mike Conway, whose oval luck in IndyCar has been nothing short of horrid with two major accidents in the Indianapolis 500, decided on Thursday to step out of his seat at A.J. Foyt Racing, citing his discomfort in oval racing. It was a rare and undeniably brave announcement for a racer to make. Cunningham's a good oval shoe and now has a de facto audition for further opportunities in 2013.
LAST CALL FOR AUDITIONS – It's the likely sign-offs for Rahal (Ganassi) and Barrichello (KV) at their respective teams and the possible last drive for Briscoe at Penske. Sebastian Saavedra gets another go for AFS/Andretti Autosport for his third start of the year. Meanwhile, for everyone else not in a confirmed status for 2013, it's the final chance of the year to make an impression before the long off-season slog of budget gathering and meetings commences.
JENKINS SIGNS OFF – A legendary voice of IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will call his last race this weekend. After missing Baltimore, Bob Jenkins will have a 500-miler for this last time as lead announcer. If you forgive the occasional missteps on the mic in recent years, you can't doubt Jenkins' passion and enthusiasm for the sport, and whoever is set to replace him in 2013 will have some big shoes to fill. Here's wishing all the best to Bob and his family in this new stage of his life, away from the tracks on a regular basis.
“This race is of course, very special to me because it's my last after 34 years in television,” Jenkins said in a statement. “I know I'll be very emotional at the end of the evening, but I'm confident I've made the right decision. I couldn't possibly thank everyone individually, especially the fans, who have been so supportive of me in my career. My only hope is that at the conclusion of the race we have 26 healthy drivers. That will be the greatest send-off I could possibly ask for.”
There's one other change in the TV ranks with Chris Neville in for Bell, as Townsend is racing the Lotus Evora for Alex Job in this weekend's American Le Mans Series race in Virginia. Neville makes his IndyCar pit-reporting debut, although he has a wealth of sports car and NASCAR experience.
The IZOD IndyCar Series MAVTV 500 airs live Saturday night on NBC Sports Network with pre-race coverage starting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and the race itself green at 8:50 p.m. Eastern.