The promotion for this weekend’s MAVTV 500 will center around the title fight between Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. However, they’re not merely racing against each other. They must also contend with numerous other drivers, all with their agendas and desires to win the season’s final races, who have no investment in either Power or Hunter-Reay taking the crown. Their only goal is to win, or achieve the best result available, regardless of the championship implications.
For arguments’ sake, we will leave out Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe and Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, and Sebastian Saavedra. Although they all would love win on Saturday night, one can assume they’ll all play a support role to their title-contending teammates, with a race victory possibly secondary to a team championship.
With that said, that still leaves roughly 20 drivers outside of Team Penske and Andretti Autosport who will be in the field, all of whom desiring to get the best results they can, regardless of championship implications. Not all of them will factor into the outcome, but several of them easily have the potential to run up front and alter the title landscape.
Chip Ganassi Racing
For the first time since 2007, the IndyCar champion will not come from Chip Ganassi’s stable. However, that does not mean the organization has had a bad year. Scott Dixon won a pair of races in 2012 and was alive in the championship picture until the Baltimore Grand Prix. Dixon also probably had the fastest car back at Texas Motor Speedway and led the most laps before crashing out late in the race.
Teammate Dario Franchitti has endured a much more difficult year, languishing back in ninth in the overall standings. But, his triumph at the Indianapolis 500, in which he and Dixon finished 1-2, means the team’s oval package is as stout as anyone’s. And though he missed the race setup at Texas, he did qualify second that weekend. Rest assured, the speed is there for Franchitti to turn heads at Auto Club Speedway.
Graham Rahal has also endured an up and down season, without a single victory to his name and only four finishes better than fifth. However, Rahal is likely the winner at Texas if he doesn’t hit the wall in the final laps. Like Franchitti and Dixon, the oval package has plenty of pace, so Rahal should be in position to excel this weekend. What’s more, with Rahal departing and the organization looking to secure funding for next year, the team is highly motivated to run well and market itself toward both drivers and sponsors ahead of the offseason.
Finally, we should not forget the vastly improved Charlie Kimball, who has a podium to his name and finished eighth at Indianapolis. His progress has not garnered many headlines, but he is easily one of the most improved drivers in the series and has the potential to finish well at Auto Club Speedway.
One of the highlights of the 2012 season has been the performance of Simon Pagenaud and the Schmidt-Hamilton team. With only a single full-time entry and a vastly smaller budget, this combination has thrived, scoring three podiums and consistently running up front at the road and street course venues. And, while their road and street program is their bread and butter, they have also run well on the ovals, scoring a sixth at Texas and then fifth at Iowa. Pagenaud has blossomed into one of the sport’s best drivers and the Schmidt-Hamilton team is quickly becoming a powerhouse, with Pagenaud a dark-horse title contender much of the year. Expect Pagenaud to be a force again this weekend.
Although Kanaan’s qualifying efforts have been decidedly subpar, his race efforts have borderline magical. Kanaan has frequently made his way from the back of the pack to the front of pack, at times an overwhelming task that Kanaan has made routine. Though he has not visited victory lane in more than two years, Kanaan remains as strong as ever. His oval results are highlighted by a third at Indianapolis (a race led fewer than 10 laps from the end), second at Milwaukee, and third at Iowa. And he had a chance to win at Texas before Power blocked an attempted pass for the lead, damaging Kanaan’s wing. Kanaan is not a title contender, but has the pace to battle amongst the leaders.
Hildebrand has steadily improved in his sophomore season, most notably garnering better outright pace at many of the road and street circuits. Yet, his Panther team’s bread butter remains ovals. At Texas, Hildebrand had probably the best run of anybody, charging from 23rd to finish fifth. He looked set for a similar result at Iowa a few weeks later, but contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay damaged his wing; he lost three laps in the pits getting a new nose and eventually crashed out while trying to make up the lost time.
If Hildebrand can eliminate the mistakes that have marred an otherwise impressive season, he’ll certainly be a factor throughout the weekend and may be a surprise contender for the win if he catches the right breaks.
Not to be forgotten are Justin Wilson and lovable underdogs at Dale Coyne Racing, who surprised the racing world by running in the top five at Indianapolis (Wilson eventually finished seventh) and then winning at Texas two weeks later. Although they have lacked the results since then, Wilson remains a solid driver and Dale Coyne’s team has been much closer to the front of the grid with the DW12 chassis. With the aerodynamic and tire package set to emulate what we saw at Texas, Wilson and company could be poised for another shocker to end the season.
Other Potential Spoilers
Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani have become regular front runners after acquiring Chevrolet (Servia) and Honda (Tagliani) engine contracts prior to the Indianapolis 500.
While Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, and Josef Newgarden rank 16th, 19th, and 23rd in the standings, all three have been incredibly quick this year, the lack of results coming from bad luck of driver error.
Ed Carpenter remains a stout oval racer. He ran in the top at Indianapolis before a late-race spin
Rubens Barrichello has steadily improved with every passing race and is riding a wave of momentum with back-to-back top five finishes. His oval results have been surprisingly competitive, with finishes of eleventh, tenth, and seventh at Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Iowa.