Fontana Finale

This weekend is all about the numbers.

25 – the number of points that separate Scott Dixon & Helio Castroneves as they battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series Championship. It is also the number of cars entered into the Finale at Fontana.

11 – the number of different IndyCar winners we would have this season, should a first-time winner take the checkered in Fontana. This would tie the current record. If one of them were to make it to Victory Lane for the MAVTV 500, they would be the 11th different driver to win a race this season, tying the record!

9 – the number of wins that Chevrolet & Honda each have in 2013. The Manufacturer’s title is still up for debate & it’s sure to be a fight to the finish in SoCal.

8– the number of consecutive years where the season comes down to 1 race – the last race – in order to  determine the victor of the season.

3 – the number of drivers to place on podium this season but still in hot pursuit of a win in 2013. Keep an eye on Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson & Graham Rahal as they fight for TOP of the podium on Saturday.

The newest statistic of the numbers game was presented yesterday when we were made aware of 6 cars taking the option to change engines and therefore serve a 10-spot penalty on the grid. Now, given that this a 500-mile race, if you are going to make this strategic move, this would be the length of race to do it. Not to mention that we are at the finale and it’s time to put all your cards out on the table. The six cars serving this penalty are from six different teams as well – Helio Castroneves (Penske), Sebastian Saavedra (Dragon), Scott Dixon (Ganassi), Takuma Sato (Foyt), Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan), and Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Hartman). Given that all of these individuals have something to prove as they wind up the current season – it will surely make for some exciting racing through the field.

In fact, I would like to focus on these six drivers because while they are all out to prove something, as I mentioned – exactly WHAT they are out to prove varies quite a bit. Since it is a numbers-oriented weekend, let’s take a look at them in order by car number… starting from the top:

Helio Castroneves, in the number 3 Team Penske Chevy comes into the last race of this year looking to clinch his first IndyCar Championship, as well as the first Championship in seven seasons for his team. He has tasted the milk at the Yard of Bricks three times in his career, but has yet to hold this elusive title. Leading the points race the majority of the season put him in a great position to make 2013 his year, but trouble in Houston forced him to relinquish the points lead to rival Scott Dixon. Helio is sure to battle to the front and fight hard to get those points back and then some…

Sebastian Saavedra, in the number 6 Dragon Racing Chevrolet, is preparing to finish his first full season on the IZOD IndyCar Series circuit. He has started every race in 2013 thus far & finished in the top-10 twice. It’s still been a bumpy year for him, from a handful of finishes at the back of the pack, to his pricey penalty for the double-finger salute he gave in Belle Isle. Saavedra is definitely looking to end the season on a high-note in Fontana and make an impression.

Scott Dixon, in the number 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, is on familiar ground as he leads the points standings going into the season finale for the 4th time in his career. If he can keep his rivalry with Will Power at bay and focus on finishing with at least a 5th place spot, he will secure the 2013 Championship. Personally, I think this will be interesting to watch, since Dixon has always had that strong drive to see the checkered before anyone else… I’m curious to see his tactics this weekend and whether he will be able to sit comfortably in the field in search of the title, without battling for the podium.

Takuma Sato, in the number 14 AJ Foyt Racing Honda, surely wants to add to his win in Long Beach & end the season on a high note. During a teleconference on September 25th, Saavedra’s team owner & four-time Indy 500 winner, AJ Foyt admitted, “We’ve really started off good and run into kind of a bad luck streak, and that’s racing. It’s not going to be rosy all the time, and you’ve got to accept that.” Well if it’s one thing I know from watching Sato, it’s that he doesn’t like accepting things how they are and he will make some pretty risky maneuvers on the track – that said, I think he’s going to make Fontana a very interesting (but still hopefully safe) finale.

Ohio native, Graham Rahal, in the number 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, has racked up 5 finishes in the top-10 this season, with one of those being second place on the podium at Long Beach! This is Graham’s first full season with the “family team” and you can bet he is going to be putting it all on the line this Saturday in search of his first victory and of course, to make Dad proud.

Last but certainly not least, let’s take a look at Josef Newgarden. Driving the number 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda, he is “one to watch” in my opinion. I think this kid is going to have a huge open-wheel racing career. He’s shown consistency all season-long, landing in the top-10 seven different times. Make sure to note that 4 of those were top-5 finishes with a career high 2nd place at the Grand Prix of Baltimore. Making the engine change for Fontana shows that Newgarden is ready to race his heart out this weekend and I for one can’t wait to watch it all unfold!

Now if you noticed, four of the six engine changes were Honda cars. Given that Ganassi recently made public his decision to switch over to Chevrolet next season, many considered this a hard hit to Honda. I have to wonder if these changes will yield the results that the respective teams are hoping for. I think it’s fair to say that the way Honda finishes out this season (especially in regards to the Manufacturer’s title) could have long-term effects on their presence in the series overall. On a related note, Honda is currently in the running as a bid to be the engine-supplier for the Indy Lights series, which could be great for them to solidify presence & work with drivers as they make their way “up the ladder” to IndyCar. Marshall Pruett discussed this bid battle in Racer, in an August 20th column:

“The recent announcement that Dan Andersen and his Andersen Promotions team have been given control of the Indy Lights series was soon followed by Andersen’s move to seek a new chassis and engine supplier for 2015. And with his ownership of Pro Mazda and USF2000, the other two series on the ladder, IndyCar has a fully consolidated open-wheel development program to groom its future champions, giving a manufacturer like Honda the chance to step in and create a direct pipeline to its IndyCar teams.”

So, even though Honda engines may be out-numbered in the IndyCar garages in 2014, I have faith that they can still make quite a roar overall and continue to prove they are far from being counted out of contention.

Circling back around here to refocus on Fontana, I feel like this Saturday is going to be a dynamic end to the whirlwind season we have been treated to by these drivers and their sponsors in 2013. This year has been, I think, one of the most heart-pounding, nail-biting, scream-inducing seasons we’ve seen in a while… and I mean all of that in a good way. 2013 put the spotlight on quality racing, competitive teams, great personalities, passionate rivalries, controversial maneuvers… and all of it with equal parts entertainment & safety for drivers and fans. Yes, we have had some scary accidents thus far, but thankfully, none life-threatening. One thing we know about racing is that it is an inherently dangerous sport, but we love it and we live it almost without question… maybe all those facts are the exact reason why we find our passion within it. So here’s to you, whether a diehard or casual fan, reading this and sharing it, agreeing with me or arguing my every word… cheers to a safe and compelling end to another amazing IndyCar season!