BATTLE ROYALE IN FONTANA
The MAVTV 500 arrives
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Fri, Oct 18, 2013
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By Brian Kennedy
There’s a lot at stake in Fontana. For a bunch of madmen who don’t mind risking life and limb driving at 200 mph-plus, there’s the usual anxiety and thrill of Indycar racing. For the tens of thousands of spectators who will watch them, there’s the vicarious feeling of being along for the ride. And for Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, there’s the chance to pocket an extra millions bucks if they can win. That’s because each driver has won one of the series’ Triple Crown Long Distance races. Those are the Indy 500, taken by Kanaan, and the Pocono Indy 400, taken by Dixon.
The race at Auto Club Speedway, properly called the MAVTV 500, is the third in the trio of long distance races, and if either guy grabs it, he gets the cash, put up by Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka. Had either guy won both of the prior two races of the group, he would have been staring a million dollars in the eye.
But there’s a lot more than that being contested on the weekend, with qualifying day set today and the big race getting its green flag at 5:50 pm Saturday evening. There’s the season’s championship, which has come down to a seesaw battle between two guys.
For ten races through the middle of the season, Helio Castroneves had the lock on the lead in the series. He’s won the big Indy race three times (though not this year), but never taken the year-long crown. And he looked like something of a sure thing until a few weeks ago.
Then Baltimore happened. That is, Castroneves had good luck there, with his main title rivals having troubles. His points lead swelled from 39 to 49, and Hunter-Reay and Dixon acknowledged that this might be the end of the chase for them. But that was premature, at least in Dixon’s case.
The series next went to Houston for a double-header weekend. That pair of races, run Saturday and Sunday, saw nothing but disaster for Castroneves. He would go down in the first race with gearbox trouble on lap 24 of 90. His team had him in the pits for a handful of laps to repair the malady, and when he went out, he was 20th on the grid and leading his rival, Scott Dixon, by just eight points. All of this following a qualifying effort that saw him light off near the back of the grid. Though he had come into the race with a 49-point lead, he ended 18th on the day, and ahead by those eight points.
The second race of the weekend was Sunday, and as that day rolled along, he had to perform. Luckily for him, the qualifying was rained out that morning, and so the drivers lined up according to points. That put the Brazilian first, with Dixon next to him on the standing-start grid. The temperature was 62, a relief from the 89-degree scorcher of the day prior, and the track was easier to navigate because it had been washed clean and then benefited from the cooler conditions.
Off they went, Castroneves holding the lead into turn one. But soon, more trouble. Oil was leaking from the car, with Dixon complaining behind. Castroneves went to the pits on lap 11, looking like he was done. He got back out, but came in on the end of a tow hook under yellow on lap 14. His crew thrashed, changing the entire gear casing—essentially, the back of the engine, a stressed member of the chassis. The point? Points. Any points would do. If he could pass just a car or two if someone else retired, it would be of benefit in the hopes for the season’s title.
In going behind the wall for mechanical repair Saturday, he broke a streak that had been going all year long—he had run every lap to this point. Before the start of Sunday, he had said, “The only thing I can tell you guys—it’s going to be a heck of a race.” It wasn’t. He did get back out with his gearbox casing replaced, but way back in the pack. Eventually it would turn out that this rapid repair and return strategy would net him one point that he would have missed had the team simply quit when the car did. He ended an inglorious 23rd on the grid, 37 laps down.
With that piece of horrible luck, Castroneves saw his championship lead evaporate, and Dixon watched his stock go up along with his points. He finished the race in second position on the grid, but much more importantly, first in points, up by 25. It was the first time that the Brazilian driver had not led in ten races.
Dixon would have been in an even more commanding position but that Castroneves’s teammate at Penske racing, Will Power, surged to the lead and took the win. That first-place position saved, if you will, 12 points that Castroneves would have lost in addition to the pile that he did.
If he’s thankful for that, he’s had two weeks to process that feeling. Come Friday, with Indycar qualifying, they’ll get back at it, the determined and ever-cheerful Castroneves trying to capture as many of the weekend’s 54 points as he can on the way to redeeming his season.
Up next: What to think of Dario’s crash on the last lap in Houston Follow Brian on twitter @growinguphockey.