MAVTV 500 2014
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Published on Sat, Aug 30, 2014
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
By the end of qualifying, Helio Castroneves had put as much pressure as he could on his championship rival, Will Power, by seizing pole. Power qualified 21st, or, in another manner of speaking, second to last, with only rookie Carlos Huertas behind him.
Team Penske driver Power had started on pole before at this track. In fact, he did that last year. His finish that day? First. Two years ago, when the series returned to the track after not having raced in Fontana since 2005, Power started the race 13th and in the lead for the championship. He finished 24th and did not get that title. He has come into the final race of the season three times in the points lead—2010, 2011, and 2012—and never closed the deal. He’s been thinking for a while now that this year might be his chance. The lead he’s holding as of now, post-qualifying, is 50 points. This is the largest lead a driver has had going into the last race since 2005.
Saturday night in the season’s final race, he must finish sixth or better to assure himself of the title no matter what Castroneves does (that’s what the media guide says, but wait for more on that in a few paragraphs). The sixth place finish would give him 682 points. Castroneves, with all four weekend bonus points and a win, would have 679. But he can win it with a lower finish if Castroneves falters even one spot.
To put this another way: if Power goes out and blows up on lap one and finishes last, he’ll have 642 points. If Helio finishes third and gets no more bonus points, he’ll have 645. If he gets all the bonus points available, then he’ll have 643 with a fourth-place finish.
One more way to think about it: with one lap driven, which unless he’s kidnapped or hit by a bus (fingers crossed neither happens), he’ll do, Power gets that 642. Helio then has no choice but to get at least 643, since Power would win on tiebreakers because he’s got more wins for the year. From where he is, 643 is fourth and all the bonus points, or with no bonus except his one point for pole, third is a must.
If Power passes just one car and blows up, crashes, or for whatever reason falls out, then Helio must finish third. Even fourth plus all the bonus won’t win the title for him. And the point spread between the first few finishing positions is so great (20 points, then ten less between second and third) that the pressure is even more on Castroneves.
Take this scenario: Power finishes tenth. He gets 666 points. Helio must still finish first, because second and all the bonus would give him only 659.
So there’s lots of media hype about the “champeenship” being up for grabs, but it’s really not that much the case. Even Helio’s chances are more or less mathematical. Of course, Power would have made things a little more sure for himself had he had any kind of decent qualifying effort.
For his part, Castroneves has made ten prior appearances in Fontana dating back to the CART days. He has never been great at Auto Club Speedway. Twice, he’s finished fifth, twice sixth, his best two results. Two times in back-to-back years (2003, 2004), he was on pole, and his results were consecutively sixth and seventh. But on the brighter side, in the past two years he has started 17th and 12th, climbing respectively to fifth and sixth in those races.
In questions taken in the media center after qualifying, the first focus was on how he viewed his championship rival. “Well, I guess his wish came true,” Castroneves said about a comment Power had made that you’d better start out either right at the front of the grid or at the back.
But he didn’t make the dig stick. “It’s 500 miles, guys. Come on, it’s a long way, plus there’s other guys who want to win the race as well.” Safe to infer that he doesn’t believe that others will move aside to let him and Will Power contest the championship as if nothing else mattered under the lights.
He summarized, “It certainly helps. Starting in the front is a good help. It’s not everything.” He was, of course, thankful to his team, crediting the position as a group effort. “We made the little adjustment. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to put us on pole position.” But that’s just the start of what he needs to do if he wants to win the season’s title, and of course, that’s precisely what he wants to do. “We have to push and be aggressive and finish in the same position that we start,” he said.
But that doesn’t take Power into account. His bonus for the title will be a million bucks. He’s hoping they pay out in US dollars rather than Aussie ones (of course they do). Helio would like to keep Power’s bank from having to make any currency conversions so large.
If Power falters at all, and if Castroneves leads flag-to-flag and collects the other three bonus points available this weekend (he already has one for the pole; the others are for leading the most laps, which pays two points, and for leading a single lap, which pays one), then Power could be in big trouble. It’s a disappointment that is not altogether unfamiliar to him.
Two years ago, he came in very nervously leading the points over second-place Ryan Hunter-Reay. When Power made a mistake on track and wrecked out of the race, he lost the season’s title. Now, any season can be won or lost on any weekend, the ultimate one not really being the deciding factor. But Power knew going out of that race that the title had been his to lose, to use a cliché, and that he had done exactly that.
This weekend is the same, but with one difference for him as a driver: he has found his courage on ovals. Rather than approach them timidly, or as something alien, the way a non-American driver might do, he has conquered his uncertainties over them, winning, for instance, in Fontana last year and also in Texas in 2011 and Milwaukee this year.
For his part, Power was pretty ticked off after qualifying, emotions which revealed themselves in his almost complete silence when he came off the track. His comments were brief. He talked about the tear-off issue that other drivers were discussing (see the other story on today’s events at www.lacar.com) with a chuckle. Then said, “We’ve got to get the car really good tonight,” speaking of the final practice. And then with a “thank you,” he was gone.
Castroneves, meanwhile, was his usual jovial self. He had his daughter help him put the pole winner’s sticker on the back wing of his car after the qualifying session was over. It took a couple of tries, but together, they got it just right. The photos went on forever, and then he made a few comments to the big-time TV guys. He then showed up in the media center to talk to the large group there, his face twisted into its usual infectious grin.
“What I’m going to do is look ahead and hopefully, never look back,” he said when asked about the crowd that will chase him into turn one and around the 2-mile oval. Easy to say, but Saturday at 7:20pm, the pressure will be on. Good thing he’s got minders to get him to the altar on time, because he first said, “The race is at 7:30? Then corrected himself to “7pm?” before media members told him the exact and correct time for the green flag.
Regarding the championship fight, a non-contender, Hunter-Reay, had the most insightful thing to say on Friday afternoon. “There’s so much work that goes into a championship. It’s the full season. The culmination of all the effort, of the whole team.”
Saturday night, it’s very like that either Power or Castroneves will be the one to raise that trophy, no matter who wins. Several other drivers are mathematically in the fight yet, including Simon Pagenaud, but the distance is too great for any of them to win unless disaster strikes both Power and Castroneves, so keep your eye on #12 and #3 as the evening unfolds.
For more stories on the MAVTV 500 by Brian Kennedy: NEARLY TIME TO RACE – MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships MAVTV 500 2014 – Power Pounds for Points MAVTV 500 2014 – Friday in Fontana Link opened into new tab: formulad.com/schedule/results