Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that the Verizon IndyCar Series was kicking off at St. Petersburg? Just as things seem to be on a roll, the series heads into the season-finale at Fontana – just a couple of nights after the final NFL pre-season football games took place. Oh well, as odd as it feels – I think I beat that horse to death on Wednesday.
The last time the series crowned its champion prior to the final race of the season, was when Tony Kanaan won the championship in 2004. At the last race of that season, the new champion drove his 7-Eleven car in a reverse livery – with predominantly white sidepods and white nose, with green trim on top. That was the only time the popular Brazilian ever ran that paint scheme.
If tomorrow night’s race had not already been designated as a double-points race, Will Power would have already clinched his first championship. But with all five-hundred mile races paying double-points this season, the championship is still up in the air – sort of.
There are several different scenarios that could play out to make Helio Castroneves or Simon Pagenaud the champion, but Will Power has a pretty strong hold on this championship. To boil it down to simplest terms, keep these two things in mind – If Will Power finishes sixth or higher, the championship is his. If Will Power finishes dead last in the race, Helio Castroneves still has to finish third or better in order to take his first championship. We’ve seen several drivers, including Power, let a firm grasp slip away in this battle. But unless something very unexpected happens, I think you can start engraving Will Power’s name on a plaque for the Astor Challenge Trophy.
I’ll be surprised if Will Power takes enough chances to win this race. He doesn’t need too. He just needs to have a solid run and stay in the Top-Five. Of course, when drivers drive not to win and just stay out of trouble, that’s when bad things happen. On the other hand, Helio needs to try and win and hope for a little bit of bad luck to befall Power.
But there are other things at stake, besides the championship. Scott Dixon would like to at least finish third in the championship. Everyone is still jockeying for position behind the two championship contenders. Not only is there a little more money at stake, but a jump in position keeps the sponsors and team owners happy.
If the 2015 schedule follows the same “finish before Labor Day” model as this year, I’m not sure you can count on Fontana being the season finale next year. Susan and I were in attendance at last year’s race in Fontana. It ran on October 19th, and it was plenty warm. With this year’s race being run in August, the heat is going to be brutal. Due to the glare issue on the backstretch at sundown, the green-flag is not scheduled to drop until 7:20pm Pacific time. That’s 10:20 in Indianapolis for the start of a five-hundred mile race. It may be close to 2:00 in the morning, before those in Indiana know who the new champion is. That’s a strong case for a DVR.
The word is that track management is none too thrilled with this date and they don’t want it again for next year. I can’t blame them. A few years ago, NASCAR took its traditional Labor Day date away from Darlington and gave it to Fontana. It didn’t work for NASCAR, why does IndyCar think they can make it work?
Not to be Mr. Doom & Gloom at the end of what has been a positive season in many ways, but…this season-finale has the potential to be a bust in attendance and TV ratings. Many local fans may not show up because it is too hot and the race is being held on a holiday weekend. Much of the core TV audience in the Eastern time zone may not be watching because it is simply too late. No audience in the stands and no audience in front of their televisions – hmmm. If they held a race but nobody saw it, did it really happen? That may be the big question on Sunday morning.
Although few may see it, I think tomorrow night’s race will be a good one – and yes, I’ll be watching.
The two-mile oval at Fontana is wide and offers good side-by-side racing. Last year’s race had heavy attrition. Only nine of the twenty-five cars finished the race. With the added heat this year, the attrition tomorrow night may even be worse. But it was also at this race last year that Will Power earned his stripes as a bona-fide oval racer. He won the pole and drove an outstanding race to win his first true oval victory, as opposed to the half-race he won at Texas in 2011.
I expect this race to be an old-fashioned Penske-Ganassi shootout. The entire Penske stable of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya could win it. Either of the two Target cars of Scott Dixon or Tony Kanaan could also end up in victory lane. I’m not sure that I look for Ryan Briscoe or Charlie Kimball to match their Target teammates. For whatever reason, I expect the Andretti cars to be slightly off the pace tomorrow night. Being hooked up at Indianapolis does not always translate into success at Fontana.
So who will win it? I expect the race to be won from the same team as the championship, but different drivers. Helio Castroneves will win the race tomorrow night, but it won’t be enough to keep my pre-season prediction from coming true for the second year in a row; when I predicted in March that Will Power would win the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.