(Second in a two-part series previewing the 2013 INDYCAR World Championships)
After the Firestone Indy Lights title battle has concluded on Saturday afternoon between Sage Karam & Gabby Chaves, we will come to the weekend’s marquee event. Despite a Hall of Fame-worthy career, three Indy 500 victories, and 28 career INDYCAR triumphs, Helio Castroneves has never won a season championship. He looked to be securely in the driver’s seat in September, but that was before a disastrous Houston doubleheader left Scott Dixon in the lead by a stunning 25 points.
Dixon’s late-season charges are well-known; since 2008, he’s only finished off the podium in the last two race weekends of the year twice, and those were a P4 and a P6. He’s ridiculously good when it comes down to crunch time, and he’ll be out to add a third season title (2003, 2008) to an already stunning body of work.
Yet, as strong as Dixon’s hopes might seem, there are a few tweaks this weekend that offer pause. Of course, the MAVTV 500 is just that - a 500-mile race, and that’s a long time for a high-performance machine to hold up. With this the last race of the season, it sounds as if both engine manufacturers have some tweaks coming, and so we may well see Chevy and Honda teams alike taking engine change penalties, knowing they can make up ground over the course of the race. Which engine manufacturer will have the advantage in the latest wave of designs is a question all its own, and indeed the engine manufacturer’s championship will also be decided in this race.
At the same time, premiere teams for both Chevy and Honda have some changes in the cockpit this weekend that could impact the race. Scott Dixon will be without regular teammate Dario Franchitti, who is recovering from his injuries sustained in Houston. Alex Tagliani will instead be in the #10 car, and as a driver who has proved he can go fast on big ovals, it will be interesting to see what he does out there.
Helio Castroneves will have a teammate addition of his own, as A.J. Allmendinger returns to the #2 car after a strong Indianapolis 500 debut earlier in the season. While his subsequent outings in Detroit were dismal, he was very fast at Indy, and could prove to be a big help in terms of putting an extra place between Castroneves and Dixon.
The onus for making the title happen is certainly on Helio. It’s not enough to have Scott Dixon suffer bad luck or a rare lapse in concentration on the track. Helio has to go out and avoid his own pitfalls and bring the #3 machine home safely and in good standing. For a driver who has to feel snakebit after the mechanical woes of Houston, it will be interesting to see how he responds. Helio will need luck, and one of the best performances of his career against a determined, talented field to pull this off. Come Saturday, we’ll find out just what INDYCAR’s best have in store for us in what should be an epic championship weekend.
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, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.