Season finale preview: Power heads three-man fight
29 August 2014 – The MAVTV 500 at Fontana will be the ninth consecutive time that the last race of the year will determine the champion, and for Will Power, he's hoping that the race won't be the fourth time in his career he's failed to win the title after leading late in the season. He enters Saturday night with a 51-point lead over his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves and holds 81 points over third placeman Simon Pagenaud.
Such a lead is not insurmountable, though, given that there are 104 points up for grabs in this double points weekend. One hundred of these are for the actual victory, and the rest fall between earning the Verizon P1 Award (one point), leading a lap (one point) and leading the most laps (two points). Three times a runner-up, Power is one half of the duo that will essentially guarantee that Team Penske will win its first IndyCar championship since doing so with Sam Hornish, Jr., back in 2006.
Last year, Power did all he could at Fontana by winning for the first time on a superspeedway. During a highly eventful race, the Australian was strong throughout, battling constantly with Sebastien Bourdias, Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon. In the end he would come out a little under a second and a half ahead of American Ed Carpenter, Brazilian Tony Kanaan and Canadian James Hinchcliffe. Given his rollercoaster season and just three wins, Power was not in a strong spot to fight for the championship, finishing fourth, 79 points behind Dixon.
The win last year should do wonders for Power's confidence, given that a crash and a P24 finish in 2012 helped him lose that year's championship by just three points to Ryan Hunter-Reay (who finished fourth at Fontana). The finish was Power's second worst of the season, but it was his lowest finishing spot in the last third of the year – a stretch that thrice saw him on the podium.
The year before, Power entered the final race at Kentucky with another shot at the title, but a P19 finish compared to Dario Franchitti's P2 again saw the title disappear, this time in favor of the Scotsman, by 18 points. (Las Vegas was scheduled to be the 2011 season finale, but the death of Dan Wheldon forced the race to be stopped altogether.) That year, Power had the most wins of anyone (six), but five finishes outside of the top ten compared to Franchitti's two really cemented the deal for Dario.
Castroneves finished second to Target Chip Ganassi driver Dixon in last year's standings, adding to the current streak of five straight championship deciders where Penske has been represented. It's also the third time in his career that he's been runner-up, just like Power. But while Castroneves has never won in Fontana (only Power and Ed Carpenter have done so amongst active drivers), after last year he knows the crushing feeling of coming so close to the championship only to lose it in the last race.
At last year's MAVTV 500, Castroneves needed to finish first or second to win the title despite leading for most of the year. A tremendous swing in the points over the Houston weekend put the Brazilian on his back foot, though, while Dixon surged ahead.
But at Fontana, a strong car allowed Castroneves to dice with the leaders for most of the race while over half of the field retired from crashes and engine failures. A sudden wing failure with 24 laps to go put him a lap down and out of title contention, but a diplomatic Helio vowed not to be defeated and to come back in 2014 stronger than ever.
The Helio that fans have seen this year is noticeably more composed than in years past, and even with an outside shot at the title, he remains pragmatic and hopeful as the longest-tenured Penske driver in history. Interestingly, he has finished second in both 500-mile legs of the IndyCar Triple Crown this year (at the Indianapolis 500 and at Pocono).
He needs to win the race this time and have Power finish eighth or worse, or if Helio finishes second again, Power would need to be down in P16. If third is all he can muster, then Power would need to be P21 in order for Helio to capture the first IndyCar championship of his 17-year career. Over that stretch, he is the only one of the top 15 winningest driver in American open-wheel racing not to have a championship. His 29 victories ties him for eleventh all time on the career wins list.
Simon Pagenaud sits a distant third in the championship, but his hopes are also still alive. Realistic in his chances, the Frenchman would have to win the race and have both of his championship rivals finish far outside of the top ten. Even if this doesn't happen, it certainly wouldn't be for lack of trying.
Pagenaud found himself in the Fontana wall on Wednesday during an open test for the IndyCar Series ahead of tomorrow's race. Shrugging off the incident, Pagenaud noted that he was pushing whilst exiting the pits, hoping to set himself up well for the race. He said that an open test (where there's plenty of time to repair the car after mistakes) is a perfect place to experiment and push for every advantage possible.
A former champion in Champ Car Atlantics and American Le Mans, Pagenaud has already found himself in victory lane this year (one of ten drivers to do so), but that was on the road course at Indianapolis, and ovals are quite a different story.
Compared to Power and Castroneves, who have scored 266 and 240 points on ovals this year, respectively, Pagenaud has notched up just 201 points, only confirming the fact that Saturday's race will be an uphill battle for the Frenchman.
Regardless of the permutations, tonight's qualifying will set the grid for a race that's only been won twice from pole position, but nonetheless an earned point for the P1 Award would look nice on any of these three drivers' resumés.
Qualifying at Fontana takes place at 14:15 local time (GMT -7)