The Verizon IndyCar championship will be decided this weekend. The race, being held at Auto Club Speedway, on Saturday night, is likely to be captivating, with a battle down to the end between Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves. Should they both find a banana peel on the racetrack, Simon Pagenaud is lurking, sitting just out of the main picture.
Last year I went to the finale with a confounded mind and it’s one that will accompany me again this weekend – though, to a lesser extent.
The 2013 season ran under a mix of strange circumstances, with the leadership in question, the schedule in flux, the car a wonderment, and the specter of Dan Wheldon’s accident looming over everything. In looking back at last year, there was a serious feeling as to whether or not the series would be viable; could it possibly continue?
Yet, like Old Faithful, it continues to endure, finding a way to exist in a world that often forgets about it. The viewership numbers have nothing on NASCAR, yet they continue to hold steady, and have even seen some modest growth. The racing this year has passed by in a blur, and for the most part, has been excellent.
The series hasn’t had any debacles like Detroit, when the track fell apart, though it has faced difficult races, like those in Houston. Well, good news, Houston is off the schedule for next year, and IndyCar is back to jumping abroad, with races in Brazil and Dubai, with the obligatory Canadian sojourn.
But heading into this finale, the story revolves, as it should, around the Penske duo of Power and Castroneves. They both have been denied the championship before, which makes the peculiar story between teammates all the more interesting. Power holds the lead, though Castroneves is the one that most fans might find more enjoyment and content with seeing hoist the Astor Cup.
Power, however, is more deserving, having won three times, and, for the most part, having outpaced Castroneves for a good portion of the season. John Oreovicz purported that Scott Dixon, with his two recent wins, and being the defending champion, is really the most deserving driver on the track, and that he should be the one battling it out for the championship, but that’s hogwash.
Dixon’s year has been a steady incline of excellence, but it doesn’t matter, he and his team weren’t there from the get-go and, oh well, that’s how it goes. Without some silly Chase/Playoff format asininity to reset the field and give a driver a chance who doesn’t deserve one, apologies to Dixon, the battle should come down to the two Penske drivers.
I watched last year as Castroneves played the dutiful employee, giving interviews with a smile on his face, talking about how he had a chance to beat Dixon for the title even though he was some thirty-odd points behind. He seemed calm on the outside, but there was something lurking beneath, something that amounts to frustration or anxiousness, that to those around him, let it be known that he knew that he held little chance of overtaking Dixon and being able to claim his first championship.
That’s what is sitting there as things progress towards Saturday night. Is Power feeling confident, with his 51-point lead, or is Castroneves recognizing that he’s got the chance to put the proverbial feather in his cap to solidify his mark on the sport? It’s a funny situation, especially when put in the context of looking at the Chip Ganassi organization, who has led Dario Franchitti and Dixon to earn three championships apiece – while the Penske duo languishes with none.
Yet I go into the weekend not with an overwhelming sense of giddiness, as much as a sense of relief. One of these two drivers is bound to win the championship, and they’re both deserving. They’ve both put in their time in IndyCar and they both have the credentials to back up hoisting the trophy.
But there’s also a sense of relief that the series is headed in the right direction. When visiting Auto Club Speedway last year, the queasy feeling towards high-speed oval racing lingered. This season has given fans and drivers alike the prospect that it IS something that can be done with these kinds of cars, and that we can move past the previous problems.
Motorized racing, by nature, is something that is dangerous, which is much of its appeal. But everyone wants to watch the drivers walk away from the on-track action. Standing in the pits before the race at Sonoma, there stood a glaring example of the disappointment that can come with racing: Dario Franchitti. Once a massive presence in the sport he’s been reduced to a figure-head and cheerleader.
So as the series heads to Fontana, the big story is the champsionship – but it’s also about making it through the season intact, and it feels like IndyCar has done that., and that, overall, things are moving in a good direction.