The battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series title is a heated, uncertain affair, but neither that nor the red-hot Rookie of the Year battle might be the most dramatic battle over the last 3 races of the season. The fight to be in the top 22 in the TEAM standings is extremely tight, and a single race could spell the difference between an entry being safe, or being on the outside looking in when it comes to series funding next year.
As a reminder, TEAM money is INDYCAR’s program to reward full-time participation in the IZOD IndyCar Series. For 2012, the Top 22 full-time entries in points from 2011 will get their share of TEAM money, worth at least $1.2 million per eligible entry.
It’s important to remember that TEAM money is based off individual car entries, not individual driver points. For example, Dale Coyne’s #19 car gets points for both Alex Lloyd and Sèbastien Bourdais, as the two of them share that ride between ovals and road/street courses. Similarly, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing continues to garner points for #22 as replacement drivers cycle in for the injured Justin Wilson.
Below are the entries still in the discussion for those final few TEAM spots this year. Let’s start with TEAM Position 17, and count down from there (James Hinchcliffe and the #06 entry has 255 points in P16, and doesn’t seem in any danger of finishing much lower than that).
17. #19 Car, Dale Coyne Racing (Bourdais/Lloyd), 235 points
This is likely the safest car on the list. Sèbastien Bourdais has been excellent in the second half of the season, and Alex Lloyd is well-respected to bring it home on the ovals. Had the #19 car’s first half of the season been more like their second half, they wouldn’t even be on this list. Barring a massive collapse, they should be just fine.
18. #27 Car, Andretti Autosport (Conway), 226 points
What is the winner of this year’s Long Beach Grand Prix doing all the way down here? Truth is, Mike Conway has had a rough season outside of his shining LBGP moment. A decent result in any of the remaining three races will likely be enough to secure his spot in the Top 22, but it’s still disappointing he’s in the TEAM discussion at all.
19. #22 Car, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing (Wilson/Pagenaud/Pantano), 223 points
Talk about car by committee! By the time all is said and done, we’ll likely see Paul Tracy in this ride as well for at least one of the last two races of the season. The #22 car should be safely in, but Justin Wilson’s injury was just an exclamation point to a frustrating season for the #22 car.
20. #59 Car, KV Racing (Viso), 217 points
EJ Viso’s had some good races, but as we’ve seen, the negatives have still outweighed the positives so far. That incident-causing inconsistency is why we find him down so far in the point standings. With P23 only 11 points behind him, he’s not in a position to relax yet.
21. #78 Car, HVM Racing (de Silvestro), 214 points
HVM might look to be in an OK spot, but bear in mind this team has been pretty sketchy on the ovals since Simona’s big hit at Indy. Their best bet to stay in the Top 22 is a good finish at Motegi, followed by staying out of trouble at Kentucky and Las Vegas. Simona’s a fan favorite, but this team has been limping towards the finish line, and it remains to be seen if they’ll have enough to lock in a TEAM spot.
22. #24 Car, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing (Beatriz/Pagenaud), 212 points
If the IICS season were to end today, the #24 car would be the last TEAM entrant to make it in. Bia’s averaged 15 points per race over the last 4 races, and realistically probably need to keep close to that average to ensure she stays in the Top 22.
23. #83 Car, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing (Kimball), 204 points
Charlie Kimball has the team to compete, but he’s not had the luck or experience yet to be safely ensconced in the Top 22. He and Bia have similar point totals over the last four races, with Kimball holding a narrow 63-60 lead. His chances of decent results are fine, but decent or average won’t cut it—he needs probably at least one more Top 10 or some poor results in the positions in front of him to leapfrog ahead.
24. #34 Car, Conquest Racing (Saavedra/de Oliveira/?), 178 points
Saavedra has some decent outings lately, but this entry’s best chance to finish in the Top 22 might comes this week at Motegi, where Formula Nippon ace J.P. de Oliveria offers a wealth of successful on-track experience for the Motegi road course. He’ll have to have a very good result to boost Conquest Racing up to a level playing field for the last spot going into the last two races. Since it’s unclear as to whether or not Saavedra will be able to return for Las Vegas, this seat becomes a big question mark.
25. #18 Car, Dale Coyne Racing (Jakes), 160 points
Jakes is racing much better than he was earlier in the year, but ironically, the finishes as of late have not reflected that. Realistically, he needs three good results, with no faltering, in order to catch the folks in front of him. He might be the most improved driver from where he started this year, but without the accompanying points, he’s stuck pretty far down here.
With only three races left, teams have the chance see their entries securely in line for TEAM benefits, or see a big part of their budget vanish. What happens, and how it pans out, might not get as much coverage as the overall championship battle, but it’s no less important to the future composition of the series. Until the dust clears and the checkered flag waves at Las Vegas, it’s going to be a desperate, wild fight to the finish.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.