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IndyCar Title Chase: Four On The Floor

For a couple of reasons, it’s hard to believe that there are only four races left in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship. For starters, the calendar just turned to August; it also seems like the season started just yesterday.

Yet here we are, eleven races in, and it seems to be shaping up as a four-driver race for the title. Ryan Hunter-Reay used a recent three-race win streak to vault to the top of the standings; he leads Helio Castroneves by 23 points and Castroneves’ Penske Racing teammate Will Power by 26 points heading into this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing is 61 points back, but Dixon is a master at Mid-Ohio and could theoretically put himself back into the hunt for the crown. Several other drivers are still mathematically eligible for the championship, but they would pretty much have to close out the season with race wins and also benefit from extreme misfortune for the current series leaders.

So barring a major upset at Mid-Ohio on Sunday, there are four dancers left on the floor. Only one of them (Dixon) is a former IndyCar champion; Castroneves, for all of his race wins (27, including three in the Indianapolis 500) and poles (39) has never claimed an overall crown. Power has taken the IndyCar championship down to the wire the last two years but lost out both times to Dario Franchitti. Meanwhile, point leader Hunter-Reay has never been in title contention this late in the season.

Here’s a form guide for what to look for in the final four IndyCar races of the season…


MID-OHIO:

Castroneves was the master of Mid-Ohio during his last two years in the CART-sanctioned Indy car series. He captured a pair of hard-earned wins in 2000 and ’01 in a straight fight with his then-teammate Gil de Ferran. Since the IndyCar Series began running at Mid-Ohio in 2007, Helio has been steady but not spectacular, with a best finish of third.

The man to beat at Mid-Ohio during the IndyCar era is Dixon, whose record since ’07 reads 1st-3rd-1st-5th-1st. Dixon’s 29.78-second margin of victory in the 2009 race is the largest MOV in the 16-year history of IndyCar sanction. So if there’s a favorite on Sunday, it’s the New Zealander. The entire season has been feast or famine for Dixon and the Ganassi team in general, and they know they need a win on Sunday for Scott to keep a chance of claiming his third IndyCar Series title.

Power took pole at Mid-Ohio in 2010 but is still searching for a win. Hunter-Reay had a breakout performance there while in the CART series in 2003, qualifying second and finishing third. He’s landed in the top ten in all five of his IndyCar starts, with third place in 2011 his best result.

ADVANTAGE: DIXON


SONOMA

Power has the best storyline here: he broke his back in a practice crash at the California road course in 2009, then came back to win the race in 2010 and ’11. But he’s not the only championship contender who has tasted success there. Castroneves won in 2008 and added a pair of seconds, and Dixon is also a former winner. It hasn’t been Hunter-Reay’s best track, with a best finish of eighth in 2011.

ADVANTAGE: POWER


BALTIMORE

With only one year of history to draw from, it’s easy to conclude that defending champion Power is the favorite for Baltimore. But everyone has new engines and chassis this year, and even the best teams sometimes get it wrong – witness the Ganassi team’s inconsistent season that last left defending IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti eighth in the standings, 104 points behind Hunter-Reay.

In fact, Hunter-Reay has been fast and consistent all year on street courses, and his best performances - a win at Toronto and pole position at Edmonton – have come late in the season. Dixon was fifth in his only Baltimore start.

Castroneves had a rough time at Baltimore last year, including being swept into Tony Kanaan’s practice crash and a run-in with series officials. So he’ll be keen to avenge that poor weekend. The other thing that has changed for Castroneves this year is he is much more consistent from race to race than in years past. If he has a fifth place car, he won’t crash trying to get too much out of it. That big picture approach can pay off in unpredictable streets race like Baltimore.

ADVANTAGE: HUNTER-REAY


AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY (FONTANA)

For the first time since the 2002 CART season finale, Indy car racing will feature a 500-mile race outside of the Indianapolis 500. What a wild card way to end the championship! And for added intrigue, the race will be staged Saturday night, under the lights.

With limited past exposure among the drivers (Hunter-Reay and Dixon each raced once at Fontana; Castroneves is the track veteran with seven starts but no finish better than sixth place) and only one race in superspeedway trim for the Dallara DW12 chassis, the form book is wide open for this one. For example, Franchitti scored his only race win of the season at Indy, using the aero package that will be on the cars at Fontana.

So I’m not even going to try to guess the outcome of this one. But I’m pretty certain of one thing:

It’s going to be another thrilling conclusion to the IndyCar Series championship.

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