IndyCar title battle set for California climax

Will Power looks to finally seal the deal, but Ryan Hunter-Reay stands in his way

If you’re an INDYCAR fan, there are some things you could wish for that would help the sport get better: A few more ovals to balance out the schedule, less grumbling from the team owners, higher television ratings…Those things.

But those are mostly off-track matters. On the track, the IZOD IndyCar Series has had a strong 2012 campaign with new cars and engines that have provided more exciting racing at almost every stop on the circuit.

Fittingly, its championship duel is set to conclude in similar fashion on Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Preparations for the MAV TV 500 began in earnest last Thursday when eight drivers took part in a test session on the two-mile oval outside Los Angeles.

Two of those drivers were the contenders that will duke it out for the title in six days. Will Power holds a 17-point advantage over Ryan Hunter-Reay, who resurrected his title hopes with a clutch victory on Sept. 2 in the streets of Baltimore.

Power finished sixth that day, and as a result, he’s being forced to battle for the IndyCar crown in a season finale for the third year in a row. After losing out to Dario Franchitti for the 2010 and 2011 titles in down-to-the-wire contests, he has to cope once more with the pressure of trying to stop another collapse and earning the big prize that has slipped away from him twice already.

For the Australian, this is a matter of erasing one of two knocks (the other being a missing Indianapolis 500 win) on his otherwise stellar body of work in INDYCAR, which features 15 victories and 23 poles since his tenure with Team Penske began with a part-time role in 2009.

Since ascending to full-time status in 2010, Power’s been a steady contender for wins. But can he finally become the champion he wants to be?

“During a 500-mile race, anything can happen and it will be very exciting for sure,” Power said at the aforementioned test session. “We want the championship and will work with a 100 percent focus to get it. Now till the checkered flag falls, no slowing down.”

His strategist, Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, is every bit as desperate as Power to claim a title. In the last four seasons, Team Penske has put a driver in a final-race battle for the championship – and has come away empty-handed each time.

“Hopefully, this year will be different,” Cindric said in a teleconference last Thursday. “Having a chance every year is something that you can be proud of, but at the end of the day, you got to finish it.”

Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay is aiming to complete a career transformation.

Despite showing lots of talent early on in Champ Car, the Florida native was never quite able to achieve true job security in that particular series. After migrating to INDYCAR, he had a promising start with rookie of the year honors in 2007 and a race win in 2008.

But then his ride vanished due to a lack of funds and he was only able to answer the bell in 2009 thanks to a very late deal from Tony George’s Vision Racing team. He finished second in the season opener at St. Petersburg, but that would be his high point in 2009 – a year that would see him qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in the final minutes of Bump Day and then finish the season with A.J. Foyt Racing as a sub for the injured Vitor Meira.

Then in 2010, Andretti Autosport came calling – but only with an early-season deal. However, Hunter-Reay seized the opportunity and came through with a triumph that April at Long Beach. Eventually, with additional sponsorship, that part-season deal morphed into a full-time ride.

The rest is history. Hunter-Reay now stands as the top American driver in the field and a potential cornerstone for his series as it looks to the future. All that’s left is to become a champion.

“All things happen for a reason and if you keep working at something, it’s going to come good,” Hunter-Reay said in Baltimore about the perseverance he’s shown. “And…Most of all, if you believe in it, it can come good and that’s how I have just gone about it.”

His team owner, Michael Andretti, has been working hard to ensure that Hunter-Reay stays in his stable for next season. In Andretti’s mind, Hunter-Reay is the consummate professional that works in harmony with everyone.

“He’s a real team player,” Andretti said last Thursday. “He’s all about the team — whatever the team needs to do…And he knows that if that happens — everybody works as a team — you then get the result.”

Both Power and Hunter-Reay have had their ups and downs this season, but have managed to stay consistent enough to make it this far. And each of them would be worthy champions, which is what really counts for the sport as a whole.

As seen at the top of this piece, there are still many obstacles for INDYCAR to contend with. But you get the sense that the core element – the action that takes place on the track – is strong, with Power and Hunter-Reay zooming along at the forefront.

That’s one thing INDYCAR fans don’t have to wish for. It’s come true already.