Into The Crystal Ball… One Last Time For 2012 Edition

As the indycar world turns finds itself at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California for the final episode of the 2012 season. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power are in heated competition to claim their first championship and the right to have their name etched in the Astor cup. There are various other honors up for grabs but none more important at this point in the season. Chevy has been dominant through most of the year and finds itself powering both contenders to the checkers in this initial development year of the new engine formula. By to indycar standards, the year has gone more or less damage free and we find ourselves primed for an exciting evening of Saturday night racing in southern California to crown the 2012 champion.

Five Things to Watch

500 Miles – For the first time since its inception, the IRL turned INDYCAR will be staging a 500 mile race outside of Memorial Day weekend. The old line of thought was the 500 was the only race that warranted such an important distance. But 500 miles races are an integral part of American open-wheel racing that was lost in this series since 1995 and fell off the ChampCar calendar after the 2003 season. The cream rises to the top, and a 500 mile race is the definition of that mindset; not to mention this race will be run in afternoon to night conditions so teams and drivers will be chasing the track all night long. 500 miles also brings with it two or three more pit stops, also known as two or three more times for something to go wrong on a possibly crowded pit lane. The pace will be furious and any bobble could spell the end of the night for someone. I think we need to do this more often.

Aero – The cars are carrying basically the same package that was run at Indianapolis: speedway wings and the superspeedway wheel guard. With the extra-large bumper, we could have similar drafting action that was seen in Indy this year. The bumper seems to punch an even larger hole in the air than just the wide hips of the DW12 can alone with the stock bumper. Add in the 14 degrees of banking in the turns that should catch the drivers early on, and we could have a good ol’ drafting party. There still isn’t enough downforce available to hug the white line throughout a tire run so mechanical setup will be of the most important order to guarantee drivability all night long.

Engines – The entire field will take a new engine for the race. There is no reason not to considering how fast and wide Fontana is; the ten grid penalty could mean next to nothing. As of posting, there are already a few drivers committed to an engine swap including championship contender Will Power. Plus, if the entire grid gets a new engine, the starting order shouldn’t change much from the close of qualifying. And now that we are finally here, we can bask in the warming glow of not having an engine penalty adversely affect the late stages of the championship. In May, the Chevys looked to have the speed advantage in the heat, but fell off once it started to cool off. This only fuels the warning to never count the target boys out no matter the circumstances.

The Other Guys – There are actually more than just two drivers running for the race win, and more than a few have a pretty good shot at winning on the big oval. This weekend will mark exactly the last time in 2012 that teams and drivers will have a chance to prove themselves by snagging a race win. In that light, this race could be more important for this group than even the two contenders. No matter how it plays out one will win and one will lose, but for the rest of the field a win could mean so much more heading into the offseason to gain momentum, confidence and possibly an inked deal for 2013. One caveat for the other guys going checkers or wreckers for the final win of the season: please, do not get involved in the championship battle.

Goodbye Lotus – It has more or less been officially unofficially confirmed that Lotus will not live to fight another year. Once the green flag flies at Fontana Saturday night, the Judd created Lotus will begin its 500 mile circling of the proverbial drain. But that is only if they can run fast enough not to get black flagged after a few laps a la Indianapolis. But that would really be a fitting end to the nearly stillborn engine program created at the eleventh hour on an even less than shoe string budget. With all of that said, I would love to see the series buy the program, up the boost and lease it to Indy only one offs. Obviously, the engine probably wouldn’t last more than 50 laps, but at least the hard work John Judd put into the engine would not have been in vain. And if we could get Buick to brand it? Perfect.

Predictions

Pole – Ryan Hunter-Reay – The only way to get the ball rolling in his championship quest is to start the race firmly on pole and collect the all-important bonus point that comes with it.

Winner – Ryan Hunter-Reay – Let’s be honest, anything less than a win would certainly spell doom for his championship hopes.

Epic Performance – Andretti Autosport – And Michael Andretti gets the second greatest prize of the season for all of his hard work; the elusive 500 win will have to come another year. The Andretti boys finish 1-2-3 effectively locking Will Power out of the championship and in the process reminding the world why it used to be the “big three” in indycar racing.

Biggest Loser – Will Power – I have no real dog in this fight, but I love rooting for the guy behind… underdogs succeeding and such. Power is competent on the ovals, but if Andretti Autosport can lock the podium there won’t be anything Power can do.

Season Champion – Ryan Hunter-Reay – After bouncing around for years in open wheel racing, Hunter-Reay seals his place in the history books all while making his future employer, Roger Penske, wait yet another year to snag a championship in the combined series.

Oval Champion – Ryan Hunter-Reay – Just a byproduct of winning the season championship, but a fantastic byproduct nonetheless.

Manufacturers Champion – Chevy – The bowtie brigade wrapped up the championship with races in hand. After their blazing start, I don’t think there was much hope that Honda could pull it out.

Rookie of the Year – Simon Pagenaud – As with the Manufacturers Championship, Pagenaud wrapped up ROTY honors long ago, and in such convincing fashion that he had Roger Penske calling him up for a ride before the season has even finished.

So all that’s left for 2012 is to light this candle. A compressed season that was oddly punctuated by an extended summer break will finally culminate with 500 miles of open wheeled insanity under the lights on Saturday night. Because Power has a very good shot at locking this championship up I have to say: if it was Franchitti and Power, I would be all about a Will Power championship. But Penske can wait one more year so AA can finish its rebuilding phase and give us a close and heated title battle from the get go in 2013. 250 miles are all that we have left before the long off season; above all I want a clean, close and safe race to the championship. As we all say every year, I can’t believe the season is already on the eve of its final race. Let’s do this!

Eric Hall

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