So, now it has come down to this – after almost six months and fourteen races, we’re now down to the final race of the 2012 season for the IZOD IndyCar Series. It’s been an eventful season, both on the track and off. On the track, we’ve seen some of the best racing at tracks that have given us duds for the past few years. We were treated to an exceptional Indianapolis 500 this past May that went down to the last lap – again. Off the track, there was controversy involving the new DW12 chassis, as well as the costs related to replacement parts, engine manufacturer’s rules, a potential mutiny among the owners and a continuing debate regarding aero-kits.
Personally, there were many highlights related to this racing season. I officially got engaged to Susan over Eggs Benedict just as the telecast for the season-opening race at St. Petersburg was beginning. Don’t say I’m not a romantic. Then, we got married on the eve of Pole Day qualifying in one of the Pit Road Terrace suites at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Again, questioning my romantic sensibilities would be a mistake. Of course, we delayed our honeymoon for a week so that we could attend the Indianapolis 500. So, no matter what happens this weekend, I’ll always have fond memories of the 2012 IndyCar season.
Much has been discussed and written about the two remaining contenders for the championship – Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. There are all sorts of scenarios that can play out, but Power holds a seventeen point lead heading into the weekend. That makes it pretty difficult, but not out of the question, for Hunter-Reay to win. Power could finish as low as sixth and have Hunter-Reay finish second without scoring any of the bonus points (one point for the pole, two points for most laps led) and still not lose the championship. Power has to have a terrible race (probably a DNF) or have Hunter-Reay win the race and Power finish lower than third in order for Hunter-Reay to win it. It’s a tall order, but certainly doable. Hunter-Reay proved at Baltimore he is up for the challenge. It will make for a very interesting race.
One unexpected twist to this race was announced yesterday. Mike Conway, who drives for AJ Foyt announced that he would be stepping out of the No.14 car this weekend. His direct quote was "I’ve come to realize I’m not comfortable on the ovals and no longer wish to compete on them. I want to stress that I am not finished racing and to this end, I would love to continue with Foyt Racing, but that’s something we need to discuss in the future."
The reaction on Twitter was mostly supportive of Conway. On one hand, I respect him for telling what’s in his heart but I find his timing a little odd. This had to have been brewing in his mind for some time. He put his team in a bind by announcing this just a couple of days before this weekend’s race. Because of that, I’m afraid Mike Conway may have put his IndyCar career in the toaster. I like Conway and hope that’s not the case. I may discuss this further sometime next week.
Wade Cunningham has been tabbed to drive the famous No.14. Cunningham makes sense for this weekend, since he drove the team’s second DW12 this past May at Indianapolis. The team was in a bind and needed someone quickly. But I was always perplexed at the signing of Cunningham for May. I know, I know – Cunningham brought funding, but it seemed like an odd pairing. To put it kindly, I’m not a fan of Wade Cunningham. AJ Foyt has had some curious choices to drive for him – drivers that don’t exactly fit the mold of the famous Texan. But Wade Cunningham and AJ Foyt share almost nothing in common except for their desire to drive fast. For this weekend, I guess that’s all that matters. But if Foyt chooses to hire a new full-time driver for 2013, I personally hope it is not Wade Cunningham.
The season ending race will take place at Auto Club Speedway (formerly California Speedway) in Fontana, CA, just as it did for the CART season finale on October 31, 1999. It was there when tragedy struck in Turn Two on Lap Nine. Canadian driver Greg Moore was fatally injured in a horrifying one-car accident. He was an extremely talented driver and was certain to be the sport’s next superstar. He had already signed a contract to team with Gil de Ferran at Team Penske for the 2000 season. Unfortunately, he never drove a race for Penske. Instead, the events of that day led to that seat going to Helio Castroneves, who has won three Indianapolis 500’s with Team Penske. We are now thirteen years removed from that terrible day and I still think of Greg Moore every time I see a race at that track.
There are three drivers in this weekend’s race that were in that 1999 race – Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchiitti. In fact, Dario Franchitti won the last time that the IZOD IndyCar Series raced at Fontana in 2005. Surprisingly, only four drivers in Sunday’s race have ever raced at Fontana and Franchitti is the only one to have won there.
Auto Club Speedway was built by Roger Penske and opened in 1997. It was built as a clone of Michigan International Speedway with banking shallower than the sister 2.0 mile oval in Brooklyn, Michigan. It is a fast track. During qualifying for the 2000 CART race, Gil de Ferran set an open-wheel record in 2001, when he turned a lap of 241.426 mph – a record that still stands today. Speeds this weekend won’t be that fast. At Fontana testing last week, Franchitti turned a quick lap of 216.7 mph. Depending on conditions, expect speeds to increase slightly – but nothing even approaching de Ferran’s mark.
Of course, everyone’s mind will be on last year’s ill-fated season finale at Las Vegas when Dan Wheldon lost his life. The tragedy sent the sport reeling into the off-season. No one wants to speak about it publicly, but we all wish for a happier outcome tomorrow night.
I will be happy with whoever wins the championship. As I detailed earlier this week, both drivers have paid their dues to this sport and they have both had outstanding seasons. Hunter-Reay has won four races – two ovals and two street courses. Power has won three – all street/road courses. They are both likeable drivers and whoever doesn’t win tomorrow night – I fully expect them to be back in this position soon. If I had to choose which one to pull for, Power would get the nod because he drives for Penske and everyone knows I’m a Penske guy. Who knows, Ryan Hunter-Reay could be driving for Penske very soon as well.
It’ll be a long night here in Nashville. With both teams ranked, I have to watch the Florida-Tennessee game on ESPN starting at 5:00 Nashville time. The NBCSN coverage for the race starts at 6:30 and the green flag will drop at 7:50. Thank goodness for DVR’s. I’ll have to record the race, start watching the recording and catch up while zapping through the commercials. Hopefully, I can catch up to live racing before it’s over.
It could be a long night at Fontana, as well. Unlike previous races at Fontana sanctioned by this organization, this race will be five-hundred miles. Although CART ran five-hundred mile races at Fontana, Michigan and Pocono; this will be the first race ever away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to have a scheduled distance of five-hundred miles sanctioned by INDYCAR. It could prove interesting as attrition may play a role in this race and the championship. Both contenders have Chevy power. Ryan Hunter-Reay has already suffered an engine failure in a race this season. Will Power has not. Some will say it would be a shame to have a race or a championship decided by an engine failure. I say it’s all a part of racing.
This will also be the last race for veteran broadcaster Bob Jenkins. Most know that Bob has chosen to step away to deal with family related health issues. Bob’s voice has been a staple for decades. It’s one of those voices that has become synonymous with his sport. Like Jack Buck in baseball, Pat Summerall with the NFL and Keith Jackson for college football – the sound of Bob Jenkins’ voice tells you that you are listening to an IndyCar race. But as good as Bob Jenkins was in the booth, he was an even better person outside of it. I’ve had the honor of meeting Bob Jenkins a few times over the years. He talked to me as if I worked for the Indianapolis Star instead of being a lowly blogger. From what I can tell, that’s how he treats everyone. We fans all wish Bob Jenkins well in retirement. We hope the best for him and Pam and we hope to still see him around the track each May.
So it’s now time for my final prediction for 2012. Who will win the race and the championship? I look for Roger Penske to be smiling at the end of the evening. Will Power will win his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship, while being helped by his teammate, Helio Castroneves, who will win the race.