IndyCar's season finale at Fontana will be a compelling race for the title
August would seem an odd time to stage a sport’s season finale. But that’s IndyCar racing for you. The series used to drag out its year before finally waving the checkered flag in October. But the few who tuned in the sport during the summer months after the Indianapolis 500 barely noticed when it went into hibernation in the fall while baseball, football, basketball and hockey raged on. So this year IndyCar adopted more of a NASCAR-like pace, cramming 18 races into less than six months, on the logic that more people would be inclined to watch when America’s premier open-wheel league calls it a season. As it happens, that will be this Saturday.
The venue for IndyCar’s climactic race hasn’t changed, though; once again, all scores will be settled in the MAVTV 500, a 250-lap event on the two-mile oval in Fontana, Calif. There’s no difference in the stakes, either: For the ninth-straight year, the championship will be decided in the final race—which airs at 10:20 pm ET on NBC Sports.
Of course, not all of the 20-odd drivers in the grid are in a position to win big. The series championship is essentially a three-man race and, as with most things IndyCar, it’s complicated. None of the drivers fits any one of the classic roles assigned to actors on a stage of this magnitude—like underdog, or overdog or feel-good story. Rather, they all kind of move between parts, like a well-oiled improv troupe. The fact that none of these drivers is American? Well, that’s sort of a running joke in IndyCar, which has toasted a native champion just twice in the past 11 seasons.
One contender who has been frustratingly close to preserving the foreign stranglehold on IndyCar’s year-end prize—a bragging right that comes with a $1 million check from the league—is Helio Castroneves. He is far more well known for the mirror ball trophy he claimed on the fifth season of Dancing with the Stars—a distinction that turned the merry Brazilian into a demi-celebrity that even your grandparents are likely to work into casual conversation—than for being one of seven three-time winners of the Indy 500, a dance more delicate than any quick step (which, incidentally, was the dance he used to steal the heart of the greatest generation).
At age 39, with 14 years in the open-wheel game, Castroneves has many more laps around the track before he can settle down with the first edition in his AARP The Magazine subscription. Still, he is one of the oldest drivers in the series and one of the more snake-bitten too when it comes to the IndyCar championship, finishing a step down on the podium in 2002, ’08 and ’13. He paced the field for most of ’14 thanks to a pair of top-three finishes at Indianapolis in May—including the 500, which he lost by a nose to the all-American Ryan Hunter-Reay—a road course victory Belle Isle in June, and second-place finishes at Pocono and Toronto in July. But a spate of bad luck in the four races since, in which he has finished no higher than 11th, has him starting 51 points behind the leader’s pace.
Now, that’s not exactly a wide margin, considering that there are 104 for the taking between Friday’s pole-setting session and Saturday’s checkered flag lap. Which is why Will Power, the 33-year-old Aussie who is presently atop the leaderboard, has reason to feel unsettled.
Like Castroneves, Power has bridesmaid experience, having led the points for the last four years with no series title to show for it—even after winning at Fontana last year. And like Castroneves, Power drives for Team Penske—which, in IndyCar racing is a bit like playing for the St. Louis Cardinals: Penske does well for itself, just not as well as the Yankees of IndyCar, Ganassi Racing—which has claimed six of the last seven series titles. Ganassi might’ve been a favorite again this year if the team’s best driver, Dario Franchitti, hadn’t been forced by injury into retirement before the season; and its second-best driver, Scott Dixon—the reigning IndyCar champion for another day, at least—hadn’t spent half the season wrangling with a Ganassi team reorganization and powertrain transplant. (Another consequence of Dixon dropping out of contention: he’s doomed to remain on his quinquennial championship-winning cycle for another year.)
A down Ganassi team means that Penske has its best chance to claim its first series title since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time series champion who’s basically Penske’s Albert Pujols, took the crown. And just as the Cardinals lost Pujols to the Angels, Penske saw Hornish take his talents to NASCAR, and the team hasn’t quite been the same since. Now Penske’s cleanup hitter is Power, whose four poles and three victories this season are IndyCar bests. One of those wins, at Milwaukee, is barely two weeks old. A stronger showing last week at Sonoma could’ve made his path to the title smoother, but Powers wiped out midway through the race—which allowed Castroneves to gain some ground in the standings and set up Saturday’s drama.
Now Power needs a finish of sixth or better at Fontana to take the biggest prize in his seven-year IndyCar career. Anything short of that, and Castroneves could pip him—but the Brazilian’s performance would have to be dominant. That’s not implausible considering “we both have the same car,” Power said in a Thursday conference call.
Appropriately enough, the only other driver who could dash Power’s hopes and Team Penske’s too is a man who earned the nickname Jean Girard—after the eccentric racing foil Sacha Baron Cohen played in Talladega Nights—by virtue of being born French. He’s actually called Simon Pagenaud, and he’s been racing IndyCars for only four years. And for the second straight season, he has notched two victories—which wouldn’t be so remarkable if he didn’t drive for one of the smallest operations in the sport, Schmidt-Peterson. The boss, owner Sam Schmidt, was an open-wheel racer himself until a retaining wall crash during a 2000 test session in Orlando rendered him quadriplegic. In mid-May, after Pagenaud claimed his first checkered flag of the season by winning the inaugural Grand Prix of Indy, Schmidt took to the road again for the first time in 14 years, lapping Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a souped-up Corvette controlled by his head.
This year has been a charmed one for Pagenaud and Schmidt-Peterson, which is clearly a far mightier operation than it’s size would suggest. Scoring an upset on Saturday, however, might be pushing their luck. Pagenaud would not only need a win, but for Penske cars to have off days. That’s a big ask.
Still, Pagenaud does have one key advantage over the Penske cars: “I don’t have any pressure,” he said. “At this point I think we’ve exceeded expectations, and all I’m going to do is try and grab it.”
If those three drivers can’t make a Fontana a compelling series finale—which, if we’re honest, seems highly unlikely—don’t worry: There are still more reasons to click over from college football’s opening weekend or night play at the US Open and check out the action on the track.
Such big-name drivers as Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal will be hunting for their first victories in ’14. Dixon, who won at Sonoma last week and has climbed all the way from ninth-place in the standings to fifth, could bump Hunter-Reay out of the fourth-place spot and, if Pagenaud falters, possibly climb as high as third with another winning week. Ed Carpenter—a keen oval racer who captured the Indy 500 pole in May, won at Texas in June and has finished no worse than second in the last two IndyCar finales—would love to reach victory lane one last time, too.
As season finales go, IndyCar presents a pretty compelling one. Staging it in the summer could be just the hook that gets more viewers to tune in again next spring.