IndyCar – IndyCar World Championship 500: Third Time’s The Charm

indycar-2013-california-dixon-championIn each of the last four seasons, the last thing you wanted to do was lead the IndyCar championship heading into the final race of the season. In each of the last four seasons, the points leader at the start of the final race is not the points leader at the end of that race. It took the last man to hold his lead through the final race to break that streak as Scott Dixon won the championship after an exciting and tense race.

Qualifying certainly looked like it was going to make for a fifth-straight season where the championship leader would lose the title in the final race. The three Penske cars (including the returning A.J. Allmendinger) swept the first three positions in qualifying. Dixon qualified in 7th but both Helio and Scott took 10-spot grid penalties for engine changes so they wouldn’t have to worry about reliability issues.

indycar-2013-california-castronevesThe race started cleanly enough with Castroneves coming up through the field while Dixon was mired back in traffic. Up front, Will Power led from pole but the challenge was led by Sebastian Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay. After the first caution, Helio, Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan also threw their hats into the mix up front. While he was battling for the lead, Castroneves held the championship lead for a time.

While the first hundred laps of the race was fairly incident free, the final two-thirds were littered with cautions. Carlos Munoz, in for EJ Viso who was either out because he under investigation by the Venezuelan government because of his sponsorship or had the oval flu, spun in a single-car incident while on a charge. Justin Wilson spun which caused a six-car pileup in Turns 1 & 2.

Even the frontrunners couldn’t keep their cars out of the wall. AJ Allmendinger, Alex Tagliani (who had a strong run replacing the injured Dario Franchitti) and Bourdais all spun and crashed. Charlie Kimball managed to avoid retiring due to contact because his engine expired first.

While it was looking good for Castroneves early, a superb pit stop by the Ganassi crew vaulted Dixon up six positions and right into the top ten. Late in the race, a costly error by Roger Penske himself to bring Castroneves in while the pits were closed cost him enough track position to cost him a shot at the championship.

By the end, only nine cars were left running and only five on the lead lap. Will Power had the lead on the final restart but he was just too on this night. He cruised to a 1.5 second victory over an eight lap shootout after the final restart to pickup the win.

Back with the championship contenders, the extra pitstop ruined Castroneves’ day and caused him to finish 6th, one lap down. Meanwhile, Dixon kept his nose clean, despite the carnage around him, and came home in 5th. Finish ahead of Helio won him his third IndyCar Championship.

indycar-2013-california-power-victoryThe win was Power’s third of the season and first win on an oval since the second Texas doubleheader race in 2011. Ed Carpenter finished second which meant that he just missed out on three-straight season finale wins. Tony Kanaan rounded out the podium in his final race for KV Racing. James Hinchcliffe finished fourth. As previously mentioned, Dixon rounded out the top five.

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As had been expected since Chip Ganassi Racing announced their switch over to Chevy power, Andretti Autosport announced that they would be making the switch back to Honda power starting next season.

Honda was in need of a flagship team to lead their entry in the 2014 IndyCar Series season now that their championship winning team was switching to bowtie power. With Penske being Chevrolet’s flagship program (Roger helped bring Chevy back to the series), Andretti was the logical choice for Honda to pursue.

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The benefit for Andretti Autosport is two-fold. Not only do they get the benefits of being a flagship program for an engine manufacturer but they also get to keep a promising young driver.

indycar-2013-california-hinchcliffe-hunter-reayJames Hinchcliffe re-signed with Andretti Autosport after the team put together a sponsorship package anchored by United Fiber & Data rather than by Honda of Canada as had been expected. That’s not to say that Honda won’t be putting money into the car but it hasn’t been officially confirmed.

The deal is a one-year contract with an option for the 2015 season. One has to assume that this is in place for Hinch to make a quick jump to Ganassi when Franchitti or Kanaan retires After all, that Ganassi ride is what started the Hinchcliffe based silly season. You have to wonder if this is going to happen again.

By the way, this weekend, we learned that the Ganassi offer was for more than just an IndyCar ride. It looks like Hinch was trying to score a multi-series contract that would see the Mayor of Hinchtown run races for Ganassi in the United Sports Car Championship and NASCAR Nationwide Series. I wonder if he’ll ask for that contract again.

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While some teams are struggling to come up with a full season of sponsorship to fund a car, suddenly, Rahal Letterman Lanigan is inundated with sponsors. The team has added full-season sponsorship from The National Guard which will be on Graham Rahal’s #15 car starting next season.

The National Guard sponsorship had previously been with Panther Racing’s #4 car since 2008. As the Guard is a government agency, its sponsorship program is up for bid every year. Robin Miller reports that Sam Schmidt and Andretti Autosport bid on the National Guard sponsorship in addition to Panther and RLL. The sponsorship is believed to be worth in excess of $10 million annually.

The addition of The National Guard to the RLL stable opens up a new seat for 2014 beyond James Jakes’ seat which is paid for by Acorn Stairlifts sponsorship. Graham’s current sponsors will need to find a new ride and there are a number of drivers whose services are available for next season including Justin Wilson, Oriol Servia and Ryan Briscoe.

As for Panther, there’s no word out of their camp yet. Hopefully they can put together a sponsorship package to run in 2014 and beyond.

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It looks like KV Racing has found the high-profile driver they were looking for to sign that sponsorship package originally intended to keep Tony Kanaan in the fold.

indycar-2013-houston-bourdaisThe team announced this week that they signed Sebastian Bourdais to a two-year contract to drive the team’s lead car. Given the Bourdais is opposed to being a pay driver this was the only real option he had besides staying with Dragon. This move gives him a car that he knows will be strong on ovals. Given some of Simona de Silvestro’s street course results, he isn’t making a downward move on that front either.

Reports say that James Hinchcliffe had to reject KV’s offer for the ride because the team’s timeline for a decision was too short for the Canadian’s comfort. As a result, he passed and the next offer went to Bourdais.

As for de Silvestro, she’s unsigned for next season. While she has impressed many with her performance this season, KV’s priority was finding a top level driver to replace Kanann. Where de Silvestro ends up is unknown at this point. The biggest problem she may have is her manager who was said to have clashed with Jimmy Vassar and Kevin Kalkhoven during the season.

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And that wraps up our coverage of IndyCar for the season. We’ll be back periodically when enough new accumulates to warrant writing a news and analysis column.

Until next time, keep your eyes peeled for JR Hildebrand in your rear view mirror… Then on your roof… Then in front of you.

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