The Realistic Title Contenders
Heading into this weekend’s race at Sonoma, there are still fifteen drivers with a mathematical shot at winning this season’s IZOD IndyCar Series championship with only three races remaining. Now I didn’t stay up late last night and crunch those numbers. These calculations come from the good folks at INDYCAR to demonstrate how competitive this field is. In fact; not since the 2000 season, when twenty-four drivers still had a shot with three races to go, have more drivers still been mathematically alive at this stage of the season. Quite honestly, I didn’t remember the 2000 season having twenty-four regular drivers but I was still following CART a lot closer than the IRL in those days.
Now does that mean that Marco Andretti, who happens to occupy the fifteenth position in the point standings, should be clearing a space on his mantle for the Astor Challenge Cup? It does not. The chances are better of me landing the ride in Chip Ganassi’s No. 38 car for next year than they are for Marco winning the championship. He would have to win every race, lead the most laps and win the pole a couple of times while Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and the rest of the drivers near the top failed to qualify, much less had bad races. Sorry Marco, but the fat lady is already singing. That goes for JR Hildebrand, Takuma Sato, Justin Wilson and all of the others that are hanging by a thread. I would like to see the majority of them all have strong finishes for their seasons, but I’m sure they know they have no real shot to be hoisting the trophy at Fontana.
I can appreciate what INDYCAR is doing. They’d be missing an opportunity if they weren’t promoting how close the standings are. I applaud their efforts and hope they keep striving to draw attention to the season finale. It should be exciting to watch that Saturday night. Unfortunately, I’ll be watching it on my DVR. A couple of weeks ago, got the dreaded news that the Florida-Tennessee game would not be carried on CBS for the first time in forever. Therefore, it will be an ESPN game with a 5:00 pm Central time kickoff. The coverage for the Fontana race begins at 7:30 on NBCSN, so I’ll have to catch up with the race while zapping through the commercials. Hopefully, I’ll catch up to it live at some point.
But we hardcore fans know that bthis is not a fifteen driver shootout. There arer only four horses in this race: Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon. Heading into Sonoma, only twenty-eight points separate points leader Will Power and Scott Dixon, who sits in fourth. Dixon threw himself back into the conversation by winning at Mid-Ohio, which seems like a couple of months ago. After Dixon, James Hinchcliffe sits in a distant fifth – thirty-five points behind Dixon and a whopping sixty-three points behind Power. I guess stranger things have happened, but it would take a bizarre set of circumstances for the Mayor of Hinchtown to jump up and snag this year’s title. For now, we’ll focus on the front four.
At the risk of using a sports cliché, it’s up for grabs among those four. Obviously, Power has the edge with a five point lead over Hunter-Reay in second. The series is headed to a track that Power has completely dominated in the past two seasons. Then the schedule takes the drivers to Baltimore, where Power won last year’s inaugural event. The season finally winds down at a five-hundred mile race on the two-mile oval at Fontana. That’s where things could get interesting. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Will Power struggles on ovals, but ovals are not his strength.
Last season, Power won the road course championship while Dixon won the oval championship – proving his prowess on the ovals. Hunter-Reay has already won two oval races this season, while Helio Castroneves has a proven resume in five-hundred mile races.
There is a distinct possibility that Power could duplicate his success at the next two races and merely have to show up for the finale at Fontana. But should he stumble at Sonoma or Baltimore, things could get very dicey at Fontana. Given his history of late season heartbreaks, the pressure is definitely on Power to finally come away with the championship after handed it away to Dario Franchitti the last two seasons. Franchitti is nowhere in the running this year, but there are still many obstacles for Power to encounter along the way.
Every one of the realistic four challengers have a strong shot to win it all right now. One may drop out of contention at Sonoma or all four may go to Baltimore still bunched up. Personally, I’m pulling for Helio to finally win his first championship, but he was invisible at Mid-Ohio and he needs to regain his stride to pull it off. I’m not sure it’ll happen. Team Penske is probably going to put their efforts toward their driver they think is most likely to win. Ryan Hunter-Reay has been sliding backwards the last couple of races. His momentum is headed the wrong way. The way things have gone at Chip Ganassi’s team this season, I’m not sure Dixon can overcome that trend along with a twenty-eight point deficit.
So, even though I’m pulling for Helio to win the season championship – I think that Will Power will finally silence his critics as well as his late-season demons and claim probably the first of many championships. I just hope I haven’t jinxed him.