Less glare this year, but surely an equal amount of drama. (LAT photo)
The points race heading into the IndyCar season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, between Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves isn’t as close as that between Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay last year, but do we expect any less drama? Not a bit of it.
This 2.0-mile track is one of the great unknowns on the schedule?in a year when the unexpected has happened more often than not. Apparently Derrick Walker has agreed that the green flag will not drop until the sun sets ” official weather people set this at 6:16 ” which is eminently wise. In last year’s race here, the early stages saw the cars heading down the back straight at 220mph into blinding sunlight ” terrifying for spectators watching the onboard footage, and rather more than that for the drivers. A fairly close shave here during the test, when Josef Newgarden spun and stopped in the middle of the track at Turn 3, has made the drivers trenchant in their view that repeating those circumstances would be foolhardy. And the series has listened.
The practice session tomorrow evening will give teams some clue regarding how the cars will behave in the first stint of the race, for it is set to start at the same time as the race. But this is October (last year’s race was a month earlier) and so the temperature falls sooner and quicker.
Scott Dixon is as placid as ever, according to his strategist Mike Hull. ?You wouldn’t even know what weekend it is, judging by Scott’s demeanor,? he smiled. ?He’s been in this situation before, and knows how to handle it. And to be honest, that applies to the whole team. If this were our first time in this position, there might be issues that came up that would seem much bigger. But experience, and the resultant preparation from those experiences, allows you to plan for far more of the variables that this race ” any race ” can throw at you.?
Helio Castroneves, meanwhile, is ebullient to a degree. Certainly the heartache of Houston is behind him now, but he at least goes into the race with a relatively clear head, his targets set.
?For me, I must just think in terms of victory,? said the three-time Indy 500 winner who still seeks his first series title. ?Everything else is out of my control. I’ve got to try and drive for the pole, lead the most laps, and win. I can’t do more than that.?
He also heads into the finale knowing that Penske, Chevy ” and in particular, his Penske-run Dallara-Chevy ” looked very strong in the test here last month.
?I think we definitely have the pace to win the race,? he stated, ?that test was very encouraging for us. Also, having AJ [Allmendinger] in the third car is, I hope, another help, another car that can keep Dixon out of the top five. But you know, if we can get an AAA-sponsored car into Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway, I think there will be celebrations whether we have the championship or not.
?Like I say, do that and the rest is out of our hands.?
THE THIRD MEN
There is a difference between the situations of Allmendinger and Alex Tagliani (LEFT), who play support roles to the title contenders, as do Power and Charlie Kimball. Ganassi has been geared up to run three cars all season, and Tagliani is a simple swap for the incapacitated Dario Franchitti, following the latter’s huge shunt on the final lap at Houston. The Penske No. 2 driven by AJ Allmendinger, by contrast, is having only its sixth outing of the season.
That’s not to say it will be any less of a threat: Billy Vincent as crew chief runs a tight ship, and Allmendinger was a very strong force at this year’s Indy 500. Confidence should not be a problem, and his Cali connection (he comes from Hollister) should add appeal for the crowd.
For Tagliani, there’s no question that he’s treating a drive with Ganassi in the fabled No. 10 car as the chance of a lifetime. It’s the best Indy car ride he’s had in over a decade, and it would probably be wise for him to put from his mind any thoughts of helping Dixon?or at least postpone such thoughts until the final stint. The important things for him will be to fully connect with the team, provide his inestimable race engineer Chris Simmons with great feedback, and share his thorough technical musings with Dixon and Kimball. And already Hull has been impressed with Alex’s outlook.
We should also remember that, driving Bryan Herta Autosport’s car at this race last year, Tagliani was the only guy that could mix it with eventual winner Ed Carpenter. He may have been almost the only choice for this ride, but many of us would have argued that was the case even if a host of other potential drivers had been available.
START YOUR ENGINE BATTLE
It’s eight-eight between Honda and Chevrolet in terms of victories this year and as Marshall Pruett explained here, the battle for the Manufacturers’ crown is a confusing one given the new rule regarding eligibility for points. For instance, neither of the Drivers’ title contenders can be of any material benefit to their engine suppliers!
But does Auto Club Speedway favor the twin-turbo Chevy or single-turbo Honda? Which is likely to get bragging rights with that ninth win?
?Even if you discount Helio’s speed at the test, I’d say Chevy had a 1-1.5mph advantage here,? said one (Honda) driver, rather startlingly.
A Chevy-powered rival added: ?At Pocono, although that was a Honda 1-2-3, I’d still say that was more down to fuel mileage and Ganassi being on-the-ball with tactics to take advantage of an advantage, as it were. If the yellows had fallen differently in the closing stages and the best Chevy runners hadn’t had to save fuel, I think you’d have seen a different winner. Marco [Andretti] or Will [Power], probably.?
In other words, if there’s a yellow in the closing stages here at Fontana on Saturday, and the grip remains consistent so that this race is decided on power rather than tire management, expect the battle to be fierce but the Chevy-powered cars to hold the high cards. Whatever Honda’s advantage in terms of torque ” and there are several Chevrolet drivers who have lamented their inability to hang with the HPD-powered cars on the exit of tight turns ” on the big ovals where the top end of the rev range is more important, the Ilmor-built Chevys appear to have the edge.
Also look for…
? JR Hildebrand’s return, driving the Barracuda Racing/Bryan Herta Autosport car. He was very fast for Panther last year, and the BHA car, as mentioned earlier, could have won the race. Put the two together and we have a sleeper in the pack. A potential winner? Probably.
? The battle over fourth place in the championship involves Justin Wilson, Andretti, outgoing champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Power. Just 16 points cover them. For that matter, Simon Pagenaud could feasibly beat Castroneves to second in the championship, if Helio hits trouble and Simon hits a hot streak. The Schmidt Hamilton Racing driver is strong on ovals, in a manner that belies his relative inexperience on them.
? Tony Kanaan and Dixon are contending for the $250,000 available to the winner of two-thirds of the Fuzzy’s Vodka Triple Crown (Indy 500, Pocono 400, Fontana 500). It’s a useful bonus, but these guys give 101 percent even if it was just $2.50 on the line.
? Don’t forget, the Indy Lights crown is also up for grabs this weekend. Sam Schmidt Motorsports pairing Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves go head to head, 12 points apart. We’ll have the winner on our post-IndyCar race video here on RACER.com, roundtabling with Robin, Marshall and myself.
? Click here for all TV times for the weekend.