One thing's for sure at the IZOD IndyCar championship at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. this weekend: the ambient temperatures should be very hot and the speeds very high. Will Power has a 17-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay -- a tenuous hold on the title in a race with so many variables.
Power and Hunter-Reay arrive to the 500 miles that will define their careers for the next several years, and maybe beyond, with striking similarities. They're both trying to win their first major championship, they both broke into the highest level in the defunct Champ Car Series (but never raced against each other in it), they both had the breaks and opportunities at critical junctions to move forward and they're both 31 years old.
But their careers are not completely identical. Power's early years were exclusively on road and street courses in his native Australia and Europe, and he didn't drive on an oval until moving into IndyCar in 2008. American Hunter-Reay had limited oval mixed in with road/street training in the development series, but showed he had learned well with a dominant victory in Champ Car at Milwaukee in 2004.
Hunter-Reay has added three wins, including two this year, on ovals in IndyCar. He also has two street course victories this season and his total of nine in Champ Car (two) and IndyCar (seven) are more than all the other American IndyCar drivers combined. Hunter-Reay has established himself as the top gun among homegrown IndyCar drivers.
Power is a fabulous, world-class road racer. He has 18 wins in Champ/IndyCar, 17 on road and street courses. But the finale is an oval and that reads advantage: Hunter-Reay, in terms of winning the race, right? It's not that clear cut. Hunter-Reay hasn't won on an oval of more than 1-mile. Power's lone IndyCar oval victory was at 1.5-mile Texas last year in the 114-lap, 171-mile second half of the doubleheader. And he was in contention for the full distance 228-lap race at Texas this year before a blocking penalty put him back. He finished eighth.
The 2-mile track at Fontana is expected to create conditions closest to Texas run with the first-year Dallara DW12 and turbocharged engine package this season. IndyCars have been turning laps in the 215 mph range in testing at Fontana.
"[Power] continues to perform better and better in my opinion on the ovals," Cindric said. "He was definitely the car to beat this year in Texas. I think Fontana's going to be a similar race to Texas. Probably different in some ways, but I think his frame of mind and he's been through and understand what that all means to come down to the last year. I think there is progress on that front."
Power's been in position to win the IndyCar championship going into the final race the past two years and failed. Last season when Dan Wheldon died in the tragic final race at Las Vegas, the final championship points reverted to Kentucky, giving Dario Franchitti the victory by 18 points. In 2010 Power had a 12-point lead over Franchitti going into Homestead-Miami, brushed the wall while running fourth with 65 laps remaining and finished 25th. Franchitti was eighth and won the title by five points.
The pressure to overcome the disappointments of the past two seasons and prove he can close out a championship is greater on Power than Hunter-Reay, who has never been in contention with just one race left. But this time Power has the advantage of controlling his destiny. Even if Hunter-Reay wins, he can clinch by finishing second. However, Hunter-Reay's under plenty of pressure; those 17 points loom larger if he doesn't win.
"It's pressure on both of us, for sure," Hunter-Reay said. "We have the biggest trophy in the sport on the line and the championship is what you're always after. I definitely like the position we're in, chasing. We're been doing that for most of the year. I think we've been getting better at it."
Power believes his extra year of experience will benefit him.
"It's just going to be a tough race for 500 miles," he said. "I've been in this position for the past two years and we need to focus on our job and execute on the day. Just naturally, the more experience and more knowledge about situations you get, you probably become a better driver. You go into the race to win and make the most of every situation as it presents itself. I don't think my approach is very different [for Fontana]."
Cindric and Power will be keeping their eyes on Hunter-Reay's Andretti Autosport machine, which has the same Dallara DW12-Chevrolet package as Power's.
"In the second half of the race, you need to understand your position and Ryan's position and strategy and [the Cindric-led team] tell me what do it and I'm prepared to drive accordingly."
The distance of 500 miles brings in other factors, led by engine and chassis reliability, extra pit stops and changing conditions that will force adjustments to the car. The race is scheduled to start at 5:45 p.m. PT (8:45 ET) in daylight and, assuming three hours (this year's Indy 500, the other 500-mile race on the schedule, took two hours, 58 minutes, 51 seconds) to run will run sun down for the final one or two stints.
"It's going to be different with reliability and everything that comes into play," Power said. "Interesting."
"Now, we go to Fontana, which is an absolute crapshoot," Hunter Reay said after his win in the previous race at Baltimore chopped Power's lead and kept him in contention. "It's wide open and anybody's race."