Sizing up the competition: IndyCar's championship fight
A mere three races remain in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship with the top four drivers in the standings separated by only 28 points. With IndyCar rewarding the winning driver of a race 50 points, and last place receiving 10 points, the premier American open-wheel series is poised to see a championship battle go down to the season finale at Auto Club Speedway.
The three remaining races on the calendar consist of a diverse set of tracks to fully test the capabilities of the drivers. On August 26th the series will contest on the natural terrain road course of Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California. The following week will see IndyCar compete around Camden Yards on the Streets of Baltimore. The season will wrap up on September 15th in Fontana, California with the MAVTV 500.
Realistically, four drivers remain in the hunt for the championship going into the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. Will Power currently leads the standings with 379 points over Ryan Hunter-Reay, who as accumulated 374 points thus far. Helio Castroneves is 26 points back of Power, earning 353 points through 12 rounds, and Scott Dixon is currently placed in fourth just two points behind Castroneves.
Sonoma will be the start of the climatic build up to IndyCar's 2012 story. The four championship contenders have seen varying success there in the past and a continuance of this varying success could see Power, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, and Dixon leave Sonoma the same way they entered, extremely close in the championship standings.
Hunter-Reay has had the least success of the four drivers in wine country, in five starts the Andretti Autosport driver has an average finish of 14.6. A statistic the current second place driver will attempt to improve. Castroneves and Dixon both have one win a piece at the Grand Prix of Sonoma and average finishes of 7.7 and 6.3, respectively after seven starts each. Will Power looks to be in the best position at the moment for the title, having won in Sonoma the last two years after only starting three races there (remember, in 2009 Power did not start the race due to a heavy crash in practice).
When drivers take to the track at Sonoma Raceway there will be more story lines than the typical 'who is going to win the championship?' RHR is coming off a DNF at Mid-Ohio and knows he can't afford another poor finish as it will possibly dig him a hole too big to get out of in regards to the championship battle. He also enters a track that he hasn't experienced success with in the past. Will he remain calm and conservative, trying to leave Sonoma with a decent finish and minimum damage to his title hopes? Or will be decide to strike? Leaving it all on the track in order to make a tremendous push for the coveted IICS Championship?
The next round of the championship will be in Baltimore, a race that saw its inaugural event held in 2011. With all drivers having minimum experience and teams having limited data on the course, the Grand Prix of Baltimore could prove to be a wild card event. To further this point, the circuit is also undergoing three changes to the track layout.
Qualifying will be a key component of the race weekend, as the tight city streets provide limited opportunities for competitors to pass. If any of the championship hopefuls select the wrong set-up for qualifying, they could find themselves in the back of the pack at a vital point in the season.
The Baltimore street circuit is very smooth on one half of the layout and bumpy on the opposing half and has been slated as one of the most physical events of the year for the drivers. Look for any driver to rise above his peers and excel in Baltimore, creating momentum for himself leading into the final round of the season or to make a mistake under rough conditions, possibly eliminating himself from championship contention.
On September 15th, the final round of the season will take place in Fontana with the IZOD IndyCar World Championships. The series has not sanctioned a race at the Fontana venue since 2005. Combine that with this year's new DW12 chassis and you get many unknown variables for the teams, hopefully setting the fans up for a dramatic final race of the season.
Recall in 2007, Scott Dixon had the championship title in his grasp until on the final lap he ran out of fuel and Dario Franchitti stormed by. Franchitti took the win and claimed the title in dramatic fashion at the Chicagoland event.
Two years later, in 2009, Homestead-Miami Speedway hosted a exciting climatic end to the championship. Dixon, Franchitti, and Ryan Briscoe were all poised to win the title, with Dixon and Briscoe utterly dominating the field lapping all the way to third position, Franchitti himself. Surprisingly, just before lapping Franchitti, Dixon and Briscoe were forced to pit for fuel with only a few laps to go leading Franchitti to victory and his third IndyCar Championship.
In returning to Auto Club Speedway for the first time in seven years, the IICS has done all it can to provide fans with a memorable championship finale. There will be many unknown variables for the drivers and teams to try to get an understanding on very quickly in Fontana, and there will be multiple drivers fighting for the title. The Grand Prix of Baltimore is vulnerable to providing some plot twists to the championship story and Auto Club Speedway is the perfect venue for exciting and close racing. The 2012 IndyCar Championship may only contain three more races, but the championship battle is far from over.