IndyCar title going down to the wire

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:18 AM ET

TORONTO - The final race of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season goes Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and when it is all over and done a new champion — Will Power in the No. 12 Penke Racing Chevrolet or Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 Andretti Autosport Chevrolet — will be crowned.

Power holds slim 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay, but as we have witnessed before that is no guarantee he will emerge as the winner at the two-mile oval on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

After all, two years ago, Power went into the final race with a similar lead over Dario Franchitti at Miami Homestead Speedway and crashed — some say it was the pressure — handing the trophy and the $1-million payday to Franchitti.

So the challenge for Hunter-Reay is to try to rattle Power.

Both drivers come into Fontana with similar records this season — Power has three wins and Hunter-Reay four.

The difference is that Power and the Penske team have had better luck on engine reliability, even though both are using Chevrolet engines.

But for a guy who only a couple of seasons ago didn’t even have a full-time ride in the IndyCar series and whose best previous championship finish was seventh last year, Hunter-Reay is sounding pretty confident about his chances.

Part of that fact is that he considers the Auto Club Speedway his home track, even though it has been nearly a decade since he last drove around its circumference.

“I think it is so neat that we are finishing the season in California — I grew up just down the street (from the track) and this is a great place for the finale,” Hunter-Reay said. “I haven’t driven around the track since 2003 in a Reynard, and I can tell you the track has picked up some ‘character’ since then.

“But the race will be the same for all of us and I fully expect that the fans will see a fantastic race under the lights.”

He comes into the final race off a first-place finish at the Grand Prix of Baltimore and having won four of the past seven races — including his win in July at the Honda Indy Toronto.

The Baltimore win was especially important as his title hopes had taken a big hit at Sonoma Grand Prix the week before where he tangled with Alex Tagliani and finished 18th.

“After Sonoma we thought our chance was gone — but I’ll tell you what — this team, the guys at Andretti Autosport never, never give up,” Hunter-Reay said.

“We’re using the momentum we have on our side from winning four of the last seven races, and we hope to use that to our advantage.”

Key in his mind is that he feels he is just plain better on oval tracks than Power, who has no oval wins this season.

“We’ve won the last two oval races,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s going to be a tough one to get the job done over 500 miles but this team has shown to be resilient toward the end of races, so I think we just have to approach it like we have been very other race this year. We’re going out to win it. There’s not a lot of time and energy wasted on counting points — we’re going out to win the thing.”

We’ll be there in the end.”

FINISH LINES

NASCAR Canadian Tire Series part-timer Pete Shepherd III took advantage of a crash between racer leader Steve Mathews and second place J.R. Fitzpatrick on Sunday at Barrie Speedway to win the Wahta Springs 300 in a green, white checkers finish. Andrew Ranger ended up second, followed by Edmonton’s Noel Dowler with his first NASCAR podium finish. Points leader D.J. Kennington had early mechanical issues and finished 21st. His championship lead over Ranger closed to 14 points and 18 over Fitzpatrick with two races remaining.

NEW RIDE FOR HINCH

James Hinchcliffe is going stock car racing.

Not NASCAR, but in the Australia-based V8 Supercar series, where he will be part of the Gary Rogers Motorsports team at the Gold Coast 600 in Surfer’s Paradise in October.

It will be Hinchcliffe’s first attempt at driving full bodies sedans and he told SPEED.com that it is something that he has had on his “to do” list for a long time.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Hinchcliffe said. “I’ve always wanted to get behind (the wheel of) one of those cars. I’ve watched the racing for years on TV and they’re just so bad ass. The races are awesome and the drivers are great.”

He will be racing against the best stock car drivers in Australia, plus some of his colleagues from IndyCar, including Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti, who will drive for Kelly Racing in the V8 invitational.

Hinchcliffe is replacing American Le Mans Series regular Patrick Long, who last year took the GRM Holden Commodore to a podium finish, something the team has done ever since the Gold Coast event was established.

Hinchcliffe said he doesn’t want to break the tradition.

“You don’t want to be the guy that breaks the streak, right?” he said. “This team has had a phenomenal run of success at this race with international drivers coming in and you don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain.”

As an added bonus, Hinchcliffe will carry the fluorescent green and black colours of his GoDaddy.com IndyCar sponsor for the race.

“It’s a cool partnership with GoDaddy coming on board as well,” he said. “We’d like to get that car back up on the podium, for sure.”

IT'S ALL ABOUT MARKETING

A question that I am often asked is why is it that NASCAR Sprint Cup is so much more popular than the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Both feature the very best drivers in their particular disciplines and the competition in each is top notch.

The answer, however, was there for all to see this week as NASCAR prepares for its 10-race Chase for the Championship starting Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway and IndyCar gets set for its final race of the season, also to determine a champion, at Auto Club Speedway in California on Saturday night.

In the run up to Chicagoland, NASCAR has its 12 contenders in big media markets like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix and Miami, beating the drum for the Chase.

You couldn’t turn on an all sports media outlet any place in the U.S. without hearing from a Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or a Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The NASCAR media machine was running on all cylinders.

Over at IndyCar, meanwhile, there was nothing close in terms of pumping the nation’s sports fans for the big showdown between Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

The marketing gulf between the two series is as wide as the Grand Canyon and until it closes up NASCAR will be forever king.


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