Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fontana MAVTV 500 Preview

To steal a line from The Beatles (with Paul McCartney on vocals), the long and winding road that has been the IndyCar season ends Saturday night with 500 miles (250 laps) around the grueling 2-mile Fontana oval.

There are storylines aplenty, but of course it all starts at the top of the points standings as Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay take their battle down to what might be the final lap of the season. Power leads by 17 points and has the easier task as he just needs to keep RHR in his mirror or in his sights to complete his first title after two near-misses.

Both will have some work to do. With the track temperature pushing 140 degrees, Hunter-Reay went out second to qualify but could only muster the 17th-best time in the field at 212.772 mph. With the 10-grid penalty for an engine change -- something that 13 other drivers in the field will do as well -- Hunter-Reay goes off in the 22nd starting spot.

Power fared much better, qualifying third-best at 215.040, though he will drop back to 13th with his grid penalty. With 500 miles of multiple-groove racing ahead of them, neither is hurt by moving back into the field.

The engine swaps does give the front of the field a different look, starting on pole as Marco Andretti won just his second career pole, and first since Milwaukee in 2008, with a two-lap average of 216.069. Starting alongside will be Ryan Briscoe, who continues his late-season surge by coming home at 216.058. The time difference between the front row starters was just 32 ten thousandths of a second, leaving Briscoe on the other side after squeaking past James Hinchcliffe to win the pole at Indianapolis by the slimmest of margins.

Andretti has had probably the worst season of his career, but a pole on a big oval coming on the heels of a fast month at Indy brought a smile to his embittered lips.

Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon rounded out the top-five qualifiers, but all will move back to detention hall with the rest of the motor swappers. Which means that Tony Kanaan and JR Hildebrand will make up the second row, Ed Carpenter and Rubens Barrichello make up row three and Katherine Legge and Oriol Servia comprise row four. No doubt Servia is disappointed with his starting spot as he won't have to pass as many cars as he has been accustomed to this season to get to the front.

Carpenter paced the field in the final practice Friday night, and loves racing on big tracks, so he will be a factor for sure, while Kanaan was fourth-quick and has always driven well at this track. The rest of the top five: Dixon, Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, all go to midfield because of grid penalties, which should provide plenty of entertainment in the opening stint.

So let's go to some predictions:

*Champion: Hunter-Reay. RHR heads into this week having driven the two best races of his life to stay alive in the title chase. Things would be even closer had Alex Tagliani not punted him at Sonoma, and while he hasn't run well yet this weekend, I still think he is going to get it done. Starting in the back isn't that big of a penalty at Fontana, but he needs to get off to a huge start.

*Winner: Kanaan. I mentioned the other day that a driver who has raced at Fontana before will win, and thankfully Kanaan is one of them so I can make a totally biased, heart over head pick for the season finale. To quote the great Emerson Fittipaldi, Kanaan has been "beautiful" in his career here, with two seconds, a third and fourth-place finishes.

*Podium challengers. Staying with my theme, look for the heavy hitters here. Because I picked him as our champion, Hunter-Reay will be in the mix, as will Dixon, Castroneves and Carpenter. Along with Indy, this is a race I'm sure Ed has been looking towards all season, and we know how he made that work at Kentucky last year.

*Stuff to watch. 1) Team orders. Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport are the only teams left standing, and it will be interesting to see how the domestiques (to borrow a cycling term) like Briscoe, Castroneves, Andretti and Hinchliffe will work with their teammates to escort them to a title.

2) Teamwork. Power has been derailed the past two weeks by shoddy pit work, while Hunter-Reay pulled off his win at Baltimore using a gutsy pit strategy that gave him the necessary track position. This will be Indianapolis-type pressure on everyone, and the work on stops and the corresponding tactical decisions will be huge.

3) Midfield mad dash. These guys are racers, and despite the fact that it's a 500-mile race and, as Rick Mears used to say, that 90 percent of the time the race comes back to you, lots of drivers are going to push to the front. Hunter-Reay especially.

4) Setups. As mentioned the other day, this is really two races. The first half of the race will be run in 100 degree heat under a bright sun, then when the darkness comes and the lights come on it will be a whole different track. Usually a track gets hotter as the race goes on, this goes the other direction. Beyond this week's testing, no one has a point of reference for the DW12 because the two other night races -- Texas and Iowa -- were run well after dark, and Iowa went off on a fairly green track due to pre-race rain. Who gets it right?

In a season of great races, I'm predicting an Indy-type shootout, with multiple leaders and lead changes and a lot of drama at the end. And the series crowns a new champion, and a first-time champion to boot. This will be some really good stuff.

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