He wouldn’t have been home-free by any means, but with five straight road/street courses coming after the Iowa Corn Indy 250 at Iowa Speedway, Will Power would’ve been in a pretty good spot if he ran well and kept his 31-point lead in the IZOD IndyCar Series championship intact on Saturday night.
But as the series heads for the Honda Indy Toronto in less than two weeks, Power’s cushion is now all but gone. And if the Australian should fail to win the IndyCar crown, he may point to his crash with E.J. Viso on Lap 68 as the moment where everything changed.
“I didn't get the call that [Viso] was underneath me,” said Power, who was credited with a 23rd place finish after wrecking at Iowa for the second year in a row. “I didn't even know he was there.”
With that, the race for the championship officially began Saturday in America’s Heartland.
When the checkered flag waved, Power’s lead had been chopped down to a mere three points over Ryan Hunter-Reay, who drove to Victory Lane for a second consecutive week. Scott Dixon faded to fourth in the closing laps of the race, but drew closer to Power in the championship and remains third in the standings at 15 points back.
James Hinchcliffe, who had gone into Iowa second in the championship, initially looked to be the big beneficiary of Power’s misfortune. But a late spin and wreck on Lap 195 stopped his hopes of being the new title leader going into his home race. Instead, he’s fallen to fifth (-30 points) in the standings behind Helio Castroneves, who jumped one spot to fourth (-25).
In summary, the title picture has both grown in the number of contenders and tightened in terms of the points spread amongst the top five.
“It all comes down to consistency and that's how championships are won,” said Hunter-Reay. “We have to be consistent. We have to go week in and week out and be consistently strong and be within the Top 5, for sure, every weekend; certainly, [Team Penske] and [Chip Ganassi Racing] and also some wild cards will show up on a lot of these street and road courses.”
Hunter-Reay is right.
Let’s start with Power. He may no longer have a margin for error, but he’ll be back in his element at Toronto, where he won two years ago. As his run of three consecutive wins on road/street courses back in April attests, he’ll be very tough to stop if he gets on a roll again. And with just six races left on the schedule, his rivals can’t let him do that.
Then there’s Dixon, who has multiple sub-par finishes (23rd at Long Beach, 17th at Sao Paulo, 18th at Texas) and lost out on a possible victory at Milwaukee, but still is in the thick of things. With Dario Franchitti’s bid for a fourth straight championship all but done for, Dixon now has the chance to take the lead for his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team after three years of coming up just short.
In recent weeks, Castroneves has started to find a really good groove. He hasn’t won since the season opener at St. Petersburg but has led decent portions of the last two events in Milwaukee and Iowa, including just over half the race (133 of 250 laps) at the latter track on Saturday.
As for Hinchcliffe, a win in his backyard would be a perfect rebound from Iowa. Rookie driver Simon Pagenaud can’t be discounted, either; at just 40 points back of Power in sixth place, he’ll likely be a contender to win at least once or twice in this upcoming stretch, which would put himself deeper into the discussion.
Then there are those ‘wild cards’ that Hunter-Reay mentioned: Guys like Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais, Oriol Servia, Ryan Briscoe and Justin Wilson that have proven time and time again to be very formidable on road and street courses.
As three-time defending series champion Franchitti has struggled mightily, it has looked at times like the 2012 title was finally Power’s to win. But after Saturday’s events in Iowa, everything is, for now at least, up in the air.
Can Power return to form on the road/street courses? If so, will Hunter-Reay, Dixon and Castroneves have the pace to hang with him throughout the summer? Or will Hinchcliffe and Pagenaud win a race to signal that they’re ready to contend?
The great race fans in Toronto certainly have an interesting battle coming their way soon.