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500 Miles To Glory Saturday Night For Power, Hunter-Reay

So it comes down to this.

After six months of wheel-to-wheel action, the IZOD IndyCar Series title fight has gone right down to the wire again, and the champion probably won’t be identified until the final corner of the 250th and final lap of the MAV-TV 500 Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

It’s the seventh year in a row that INDYCAR has staged a thrilling championship duel at the final event. It’s hard to fathom that way back in 2005, Dan Wheldon was the last driver to clinch an IndyCar Series championship before the last race of the season.

Team Penske’s Will Power and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay are separated by just 17 points going to California, and one of those men is going to leave the Golden State a million dollars richer – and a whole lot happier.

In a series where the difference between first and second place is 10 points and there’s at least a two-point gap between every finisher in the top 10, the difference between Power and Hunter-Reay has been 1.2 points per race. And there are countless reasons why the race Saturday night is pretty much a lottery.

For starters, this will be the first 500-mile Indy car race outside of the Indianapolis 500 since 2002, when the CART-sanctioned championship staged the fastest 500-mile race in history. Jimmy Vasser won for Team Rahal at an average speed of 197.995 mph, and with just a couple less laps of caution, the mythical 200-mph barrier would have been broken.

The track then called California Speedway did host a 200-mph race just a year later, as Sam Hornish Jr. averaged 207.151 mph in winning a 400-mile race under Indy Racing League sanction. Imagine that: A 400-mile race that lasted just an hour and 56 minutes.

The 2-mile oval in Fontana was also the site of the fastest individual laps in Indy car racing history. Mauricio Gugelmin was Indy car’s first 240-mph man, clocking a 240.942-mph qualifying lap in 1997, a number that was increased to 241.426 mph by Gil de Ferran in 2001 despite intense efforts to slow the cars. Gugelmin is still unofficially the fastest man in Indy car racing history with his 242.333-mph practice lap.

The speeds won’t approach those eye-popping numbers this weekend – the pole speed is likely to be around 220 mph. But the foot-to-the floor nature of the track is every bit as difficult on cars and engines as it was 10 years ago – maybe even more so as the oval has gotten rather bumpy over the years.

Reliability is the crucial wild card this weekend, and if the rest of the 2012 season is anything to go by, Saturday night’s race is more likely to resemble the CART years than the IRL era in terms of attrition.

The six CART-sanctioned races at ACS between 1997 and 2002 featured a finish rate of 48.7 percent (73 finishes out of 150 starts), and the fallout was sometimes remarkable. In 2000, for example, only six of the 25 starters were running at the checkered flag, and 13 of the 19 retirements were due to engine failures. The CART 500-milers at Fontana averaged eight engine failures per year.

It was a different story during the four-year IRL era (2002-05), when the finish rate was 82.7 percent (72 finishers from 87 starts) without a single engine failure.

This year figures to fall somewhere in between; there were six engine-related non-finishes at the Indianapolis 500 this year out of 33 starters, so it’s logical to conclude that there are likely to be three or four engine-related retirements this weekend. Several drivers – including championship protagonists Power and Hunter-Reay – will probably opt for pre-race engine changes to guarantee they will start the endurance contest with a fresh unit instead of engines that already have been used for at least two race weekends.

Only five of the drivers in this weekend’s field have raced at Auto Club Speedway; Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and Dario Franchitti, who won the last Indy car race at ACS in 2005.

But the Penske and Andretti teams have scheduled test days at the California oval, so their drivers should be well-prepared by the time the green flag waves Saturday evening.

“I have not done a lot of testing on superspeedways in the past before the races, so this is going to be a unique opportunity,” Hunter-Reay said. “Now we get to go to Fontana, which is an absolute crapshoot. It’s wide open and anybody’s race. Granted, the usual suspects - Ganassi and Penske - usually are very strong on ovals, especially the superspeedways. Too bad we are not going to a short oval right now.”

Indeed, Power must be glad that the final race is not on a short oval because he lost 72 points to Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee and Iowa this year, both races that Hunter-Reay won during his three-race win streak at midseason.

Power’s modest goal is simply to finish Saturday. Involved in championship battles the last two years against Franchitti, Power crashed at Homestead in 2010 and got taken out in a pit lane incident in 2011 at Kentucky in what turned out to be the season finale.

“It’s going to be interesting, a 500-mile race,” Power said. “Maybe it will be the first ‘last’ race that I finish, because every year, I get crashed out. I’m determined this time to just finish the last race and finish it as the leader of the championship.”

With the championship lead, Power and Penske can afford to be defensive this weekend. If Power simply starts the race, he will gain 12 points and – taking the potential bonus points for pole position or leading the most laps out of the mix - Hunter-Reay must therefore finish at least fourth to have a shot at the title.

“I think you’re typically always watching whoever your competition is, whether it’s who you feel is most competitive for that race or for the championship,” said Penske Racing president (and Power strategist) Tim Cindric. “But it is a little bit different than normal because (winning) the race really isn’t important to us as far as Will's concerned. It’s just a matter of ensuring that we beat Ryan at the end of the day.”

Cindric believes that after two crushing championship losses, Power is ready to win his first IndyCar title.

“He’s been through the different experiences of the highs and lows,” Cindric said. “He continues to perform better and better, in my opinion, on the ovals. He was definitely the car to beat in Texas, and I think Fontana’s going to be a similar race to Texas. It’s probably different in some ways, but I think his frame of mind after what he’s been through, he understands what that all means to come down to the last race.”

Not surprisingly, Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti is convinced that despite entering the weekend with a 17-point deficit, Hunter-Reay will emerge with the team’s first championship since Franchitti won the 2007 crown for what was then called Andretti Green Racing.

Penske’s last championship came with Hornish in 2006.

“The thing about Ryan is he can win on any type of racetrack, and that’s what is great to have him on your racing team,” Andretti said. “For sure, Ryan is going to be a factor there. But don’t count Will out. He’s a real competitor. He’s a great driver. But obviously he doesn’t have quite as much experience as what Ryan does, especially on this track that we are going to. I’m not even sure if Will ever ran on a track like that before. So hopefully that will help us out a little bit.

“All Will has to do is finish right behind us and he wins the championship, so he’s going to be racing behind us in that way. If we are running third, all he has to do is finish fourth, and he’s fine, whereas, we have to go for the win and hope that we have some help with a couple guys between us. We are still going to need to have a really good race and we are going to need him to have just an average race.”

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500 Miles To Glory Saturday Night For Power, Hunter-Reay
500 Miles To Glory Saturday Night For Power, Hunter-Reay
After six months of wheel-to-wheel action, the IZOD IndyCar Series title fight has gone right down to the wire again, and the champion probably won’t be identified until the final corner of the 250th and final lap of the MAV-TV 500 Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
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