The long-awaited last leg of the Fuzzy’s Triple Crown is finally here. With Tony Kanaan winning the Indianapolis 500 and Scott Dixon winning at Pocono, the sweep of the Triple Crown and the $1 Million prize that goes with it is no longer possible. But if one of those drivers wins tomorrow night in the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA – there is still a quarter-million dollar bonus on the line for one of them. That’s not too shabby for even the highest paid driver in the field.
But there is a lot more at stake this weekend, besides that. Scott Dixon is now leading the championship standings by twenty-five points. Helio Castroneves is the only other driver that is capable of snatching the championship away from Dixon. But the roles have been reversed. For the past few months, Helio Castroneves was the one being chased as the points leader. After his two-race debacle in Houston, he now finds himself in the role of the hunter.
That’s not all bad, considering how Helio was driving as the points leader. He was cautious and tentative. That driving style had nothing to do with his disastrous weekend in Houston two weeks ago when he had gearbox troubles in both races – but you could see he was driving very nervously. Now that he has been supplanted as the points leader and he is in a nothing-to-lose mindset, perhaps he can revert to the aggressive style that got him there in the first place.
I’ve made it no secret that I’m pulling for Helio. I consider it to be a hole in his resume to have no series championship to his credit. It’s especially glaring when held up against the three Indianapolis 500’s he has won. His window of opportunity is beginning to close. One wonders if he’ll ever be this close to a championship again in what’s left of his career. Personally, it would be a nice sight for me to see him hoist the Astor Challenge trophy tomorrow night.
Auto Club Speedway is a fast track. It always has been. The IndyCar record speed was set at this track, when Gil de Ferran turned a lap of 241.428 mph at the CART finale in 2000. By comparison, Marco Andretti won the pole last year with a two-lap average of 216.069 mph.
Of course, there cannot be an open-wheel race at Fontana without remembering that tragic Halloween Sunday in 1999, when popular and talented driver Greg Moore was fatally injured coming out of Turn Two. The winning driver from Maple Ridge, BC had already signed to team with Gil de Ferran at Marlboro Team Penske for 2000. At the age of twenty-four, he had just hit his stride. He had already accumulated five wins in his four years in CART. As dominant as Team Penske was in the next two years, all you can think of is what might have been. Just a few days following Moore’s fatal accident, Penske hired Helio Castroneves to team with de Ferran. Fourteen years later, Castroneves is ironically seeking his first championship on the same track that took Moore’s life.
Once again, the championship comes down to Penske and Ganassi. It’s like Yankees and Red Sox , Celtics and Lakers or Ohio State & Michigan – two historically powerful rivals, both rich in tradition. Except for last year, it’s been those two teams battling down to the last race every year since Scott Dixon nipped Helio for the title at Chicagoland in 2008.
Ed Carpenter is the defending race winner for this event. In fact, Ed has won the final race of the past two seasons. Can he make it three in a row? It’s a tall order, but Carpenter does extremely well in five-hundred mile races and on large ovals. I would expect him to run up front all night and be a contender.
There are other storylines to follow this weekend. Bobby Rahal’s team has snagged the lucrative National Guard sponsorship for next season. I’m not sure where that leaves Ryan Briscoe, John Barnes or Panther Racing for 2014, but something will probably yield some answers on that front this weekend.
Several other drivers and teams are unsure of their respective status for next year. As of this writing, James Hinchcliffe’s future is still up in the air. I’m betting that when the dust settles, he’s still at Andretti Autosport. If that’s the case, I was wondering who winds up at KR Racing Technology. But we found the answer to that earlier this week, when Sebastien Bourdais signed with Jimmy Vasser’s team. Does EJ Viso remain with Andretti? Who knows?
What about Oriol Servia? Does he lose another round of musical chairs and wind up on the outside looking in? JR Hildebrand is another question mark. As likeable as the Californian is, I’m not sure any full-time rides await him. Does Pippa Mann finally ink the full-time ride she has been working feverishly to cultivate? Pippa also happens to be in tomorrow night’s race, driving for Dale Coyne. Will her performance tomorrow night bolster her chances? What about James Jakes? Does he re-up at Rahal or does he take his Acorn Stairlift money elsewhere? How about Simona de Silvestro? Will she return to KV? Word has it, she’s not so sure.
Some of these questions will never be answered. Others will play out over the offseason, but there’s a chance that a few may be answered this weekend.
In the interest of full disclosure, a lot of this is being written in Nashville on Wednesday night while Susan is frantically packing for our Thursday departure for Fontana. After this posts, then I’ll begin posting live at some point from the track. Please check here often for updates as well as a slew of pictures. You can also follow me (@Oilpressureblog) or Susan (@chiapet58) for instant pictures and updates.
So it’s time for my infamous picks that rarely come true, although I was one of the very few to pick Tony Kanaan to win at Indianapolis. The pressure is off for Helio and I think it renews his driving style. Like Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves has a very good record in five-hundred mile races. Dixon is the logical pick to win the championship. I believe he can finish fifth, have Helio win the race and Dixon can still win the championship. That won’t happen. Dixon was gold in Houston. He was also untouchable in the Toronto double-header and at Pocono to give him three wins in a row. But then he hit a streak where bad luck bit him.
I’ll go against the grain. I think Dixon’s lucky streak ends at Fontana. He will experience some type of problem to set him back far enough that he can’t catch Helio. Because Helio will win the race and the championship. Resume complete.