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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.

George Phillips

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20 Responses to “Fontana Preview”

  1. Good post, George. I’m pulling for RHR over Power and Tennessee over Florida.

  2. Just a couple story lines Saturday. Cheers to the BigTen for not forgetting about the Noon kickoff. I will be able to go to the ‘Shoe and back and still catch the whole race live.

    The Conway thing is very strange. On a personal level, if you don’t feel safe doing something then don’t do it. On the racecar driver level, he just sounds scared. I thought they were all wired differently. If this were Dario-TK-Helio who did this I would assume the track is unsafe. Even Milka seemed cool with pack racing. I guess this is always has the potential of happening when you go to GP2 instead of Lites to find a driver. I hope Conway enjoys racing sportscars.

    As for the race, I like an Indy repeat of 9-10 draft up front. I do see a Will Power crash coming. But what I can’t predict is if RHR finishes high enough to win the Astor Cup.

  3. I’d never question Mike Conway’s skill and/or courage. He’s a good driver who’s climbed back into cars after horrible accidents. But like you, I would question his timing.

    I can’t help but think back to last year’s finale. I want an exciting and competitive race. But I’m mainly hoping for a safe 500 mile conclusion to this season.

    I’ll pick Dixon–the most underrated driver in Indycar–to win the race and Power to win the championship–too much in his favor.

  4. So you dislike cat owning hipsters?

  5. Another great post George!! I won’t re-hash my take for cheering on RHR, but I will interject that any respect I had for Conway just flew out the proverbial window. You don’t quit on the last INDYCAR race of the season because you are scared of ovals. Particularly if you drive for AJ Foyt.

    • Easy for you to say from your comfortable, stationary seat. Take another look at his Indy crash.

      • Conway chose to race open wheel race cars, signed contracts for the season, ect. and left Foyt hanging with one race to go. That is BS.

      • By the way Ron, the argument that I or anyone else who sees this the way I do does so from the comfort of their “stationary” seat doesn’t float. There are moments in someone’s life when courage is marked and not in sport. Some of those moments are unspeakable, but racing is a sport and Conway could have got off the plane far earlier than the last race of the season. Sometimes you have to see something through and realize your commitments.

        • Again, easy for you to say. How can you question this man’s courage? Get in one of those cars and get it up over 200 mph and then get back to me.

          • I find it easy to question a man’s character particularly when you know what it’s like to persevere and see something through. When it came to seeing his 2012 commitment through to the end, Conway came up short. As for getting into one of those cars and going 200 mph, three things, I am NOT a trained racing professional, I don’t have the money (unless you buy me a ride and then I’ll give it a shot, no question about it) and I never had the opportunity to drive race cars as a profession. That and the fact that I am a paying customer makes your point/dig obtuse. As for his wreck last year, yes, it is bad, but he shouldn’t have put the helmet on if he didn’t want to commit to the program.

        • I just find it odd that someone who is just sitting in the stands, so to speak, feels the need to be so judgemental about Mr. Conway. It is worth noting that not a single driver had anything negative to say about Mr. Conway’s decision. Nothing “obtuse” about that.

        • I find it just as odd to be admonished for my take on Mike Conway\’s character. He quit on the last race and tied up the sponsorship as well as the \”Conway\” merchandising. He knew back at Indianapolis that he was uncomfortable with ovals and a lot of the people in the paddock knew it because he told them. Looking at this from the owner\’s side I\’d say he screwed Foyt over. However, you question my take on character. Well Ron, if you approve of that type of charater then have at it, but I can tell you that Conway\’s career is in the shitter because of he wasn\’t a stand up guy and quiting on the last race is BS. That is what losers do. Unlike you, obviously, I was made to complete every seaon for every sport I asked to be signed up to. That included those early years when the team\’s coach was terrible, it was not much fun and spending Saturday morning watching the Three Stooges was far more attractive than getting wiped out by another junior league team. However, I was taught to stay the course and that is what I teach my son. My son is counted on by his teammates and he will be there for them like I was. Obviously you disagree, but I am not aking for your advice on this because your opinion is shown to me to be irrelevent.

          • Playing a team sport like you are refering to is very, very different than risking your life for a sport. If Conway suddenly became scared and realized he just didn’t want to risk death,I would never question his character. He made this decision knowing that he was ending his Indycar career by doing so.

  6. Gurney Eagle Says:

    Props to Bob Jenkins. NASCAR should genuflect to him daily for putting them on the map at ESPN. Now that he’s retiring and Paul Page is out of a job, maybe …

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Here’s hoping for a good race and a nice send-off for Bob Jenkins. I’ve had a laugh or two at the expense of some of his gaffes over the years, but he’s always been a knowledgeable, passionate, and levelheaded broadcaster and I’ll miss him as much as anyone.

    The Conway situation is, to me, sort of a small-scale version of CART-Texas 2001. It’s not a perfect comparison, but both were tough decisions that probably had to be made, both were very poorly timed, and both were not really good in any way for the parties involved.

  8. Bob Jenkins…….Look it up in the dictionary, “class”, his picture is beside the word. Thanks for all you did in motor racing.

  9. hate to see bob jenskins go. he even took time many years ago to chat with me at the eldora speedway when he was way to busy to do so and did anyway. god bless bob and his wife. wats wrong with wade cunningham good driver. with more time i belive he will get only better. maybe he could hire some top talent frm europe. maybe almindinger or alex lloyd could be good replacements for conway.

  10. Death, Taxes, and Power walling it in an oval. What can RHR do with this?

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