After a Kentucky Indy 300 that had an incredible finish, it's time to again check in to see who's heating up and who's cooling down heading into the big finale at the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships at Las Vegas. The key now is to finish strong, build confidence, and begin the offseason on as high a note as possible. Below are some drivers who have hit their stride, some that seem to have lost it, and others looking for any sort of positive result:
Ed Carpenter/Sarah Fisher Racing: Ed and SFR received a huge boost of confidence by winning the Kentucky Indy 300 in the most competitive, nail-biting manner possible. They'll charge into Las Vegas feeling confident and capable. It might be too much to predict another win, but a solid Top 10 finish in the finale would help carry that momentum into the turbulence of the offseason.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: RHR has finished in the Top 10 in 8 out of the last 9 races. He looked very strong at Kentucky, fighting for a podium until the very end. He's got one oval win under his belt this year, and could end up as high as P5 in the final points standings this year.
Wade Cunningham: After crashing at Texas, Cunningham was a big question mark coming into his second IZOD IndyCar Series race weekend. Qualifying P15, he sliced through the field, finishing P7 in an extremely strong showing for AFS/SSM. It's been worth the wait to see the longtime Firestone Indy Lights champ get to show off his potential.
Dario Franchitti: It held that Dario would do well on the final two ovals of the year, and he did not disappoint in the first of those. Barely missing out on the victory, he managed a 29-point swing over Will Power to now lead the championship battle by 18 points coming into the last race. This is his sort of race and situation. Nothing's written in stone, but it feels as if it the championship is now his to lose.
Scott Dixon: In the last seven races, the only thing Dixie's done is win twice, finish in the Top 5 five other times, and secure the A.J. Foyt Oval Trophy. Whatever his struggles at the start of the season, he's been lights out overall in the second half. He might not have a chance for the overall championship, but he's still alive to finish Series runner-up this year.
James Hinchcliffe: Popular wisdom held that Panther Racing's traditional excellence on the ovals would likely put the Mayor of Hinchtown's Sunoco Rookie of the Year hopes out of reach. Instead, an inspired P4 finish at Kentucky propelled Hinch to six points ahead of JR Hildebrand for the ROY fight going into Las Vegas. He looked like anything but a rookie fighting for a podium in Kentucky; if he races like that in the finale, he should have the advantage.
Will Power: When Ana Beatriz slashed Will's sidepod in the pits in the Kentucky Indy 300, it was the end of any promise the day held and the start of Power finding himself down 18 points to Franchitti in the championship battle heading into Las Vegas. Will had been golden since Infineon, but all that vanished in the blink of an eye in Kentucky. He's going to be the underdog going into the final race, and even a great finish might not be enough.
Helio Castroneves: Simply put, Helio has not had a good result since Infineon. His streak of 11 years with at least one Series win is in deep trouble. Rumors are he's signed for 2012 with Penske Racing, but right now it seems as if this team is finding different ways to finish poorly each week. Does he have any aces up his sleeve in 2011? If he does, we'll soon find out.
Tony Kanaan: It's been a rough road with this team since engineer Michael Cannon departed, with a podium at Baltimore as the sole exception. Kanaan was well off pace this week at Kentucky, and was basically a non-factor all weekend. Las Vegas seems like it will be TK's kind of track, so we'll have to see if he'll bring a dose of wild passing in a return to form.
Ana Beatriz: It was hoped Bia would find some manner of rhythm over the second half of the season, but she's been unable to crack the Top 10 so far. A cold streak grew colder in Kentucky, when she had a pit incident with Will Power and later hit the wall in a single-car incident. It hasn't been the season Bia or her fans wanted, and Las Vegas will be a fight if she wants to add that Top 10 finish to this year's resume.
Whether drivers have been heating up or cooling down, Las Vegas represents one last chance to change perceptions, change luck, or change position. In less than two weeks, we'll see who is capable of doing precisely that.
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 (@indycaradvocate), or via email at mail.rpgblog@gmailcom .