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MAVTV 500 provided fitting end to INDYCAR 2012 season

September 22, 2012

Photo courtesy IZOD IndyCar Series LAT USA

Has it really a week since the IZOD IndyCar Series season ended? It was a magnificent MAVTV 500 race on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval last Saturday night, showing just who in the field of 26 is able to understand and work with changing track and weather conditions – and who isn’t.

For the third year in a row, Will Power failed to earn a championship, this time ceding to Ryan Hunter-Reay (RHR), whose prowess on all disciplines of current Indy car racing and whose resilience throughout the year have been his calling card. RHR and his No. 28 SunDrop/DHL bright yellow Andretti Autosport Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone Indy car took home four victories, a single pole position, six podiums, 153 laps led – and the big Vanderbilt Cup, emblematic of a series championship. Since taking the title, RHR’s been on a whirlwind trip of television appearances across the country.

The Florida-based American brought Andretti Autosport (born as Andretti Green Racing) its fourth overall championship in the IZOD IndyCar Series: Tony Kanaan (2004), Dan Wheldon the following season, Dario Franchitti in 2007 and Hunter-Reay complete that successful quartet, bringing joy to team owner Michael Andretti.

This marks the close of RHR’s third season with Andretti Autosport after bouncing around the CART/Champ Car and INDYCAR paddocks since he began racing big cars. He initially raced for American Spirit Team Johannson, then went to Herdez Racing (now HVM), on to Rahal Letterman Racing, to Vision Racing, AJ Foyt Enterprises and finally to Andretti Autosport.

RHR was 17 points behind Power and the duo were jockeying for position in the early going after the first round of pit stops. Power caught one of Auto Club Speedway’s seams and spun out in the second turn, hitting the wall and, he thought, ending his night on the 55th lap, causing the 500-mile race’s first caution a lap later.

Not so fast, said Team Penske. Crew members from all three Penske squads pitched in and got Power’s car back on the track so that it could complete the necessary number of laps – 12 – to pass EJ Viso in the finishing order in 24th, rather than 25th place. He got two added points for his efforts and forced RHR to complete the 250-lap contest fifth or better, as Power watched anxiously from outside his car. He was gracious in defeat, something the Aussie’s getting accustomed to doing; Hunter-Reay was gracious in victory, showing his own inbred class.

Power congratulates Hunter-Reay
Photo courtesy IZOD IndyCar Series LAT USA

This wasn’t one of those “pack” races that keep fans’ mouths in a perpetual “O” but it sure was competitive, with cars utilizing every single part of the racetrack. JR Hildebrand was the early master of the high line after practicing at the top, as was RHR. Tony Kanaan looked primed to add his win total before the 2004 champ crashed in the fourth turn on lap 240, setting up a surprise red flag and a mad dash to the finish.

Race winner Ed Carpenter earned his second INDYCAR trophy after leading the most laps, 62, of the race. His victory gave Carpenter the mention of being the first owner/driver to visit Victory Lane in an Indy car since Adrian Fernandez did the deed on this same track in October of 2004. Fernandez wasn’t on the premises for the MAVTV 500 this past weekend, but fellow Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr was hanging around the Rahal Letterman Lanigan pits, perhaps looking for another ride with the team?

AJ Allmendinger was omnipresent in the paddock and pits throughout the race meeting as Roger Penske’s guest. He told me, early on, that he’d completed his NASCAR Road to Recovery program three weeks earlier and was just waiting for NASCAR to acknowledge that completion, something they did this week. Sure hope the Dinger gets a ride worthy of his talents and a better babysitter when he’s apt to listen to the wrong people…

AJ Allmendinger was Roger Penske’s guest at Fontana
Anne Proffit photo

If there’s anything this race showed after 500 miles, 250 laps and seven cautions, along with 29 lead changes amongst 12 drivers, it’s that numbers count. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained 18 positions en route to his fourth place result; Katherine Legge scored her best finish of the year in ninth place – after having to sit out all but one road/street course race following the Indy 500 (due to a lack of Chevy engines for her Dragon Racing team). RHR beat Power by three points by finishing fourth and, would you believe there were seven different teams in the top 10 after the race was done?

Alex Tagliani was oh, so close to taking his second victory in this class, only to have his Honda engine expire on the 230th lap. And how about Takuma Sato, whose 2012 oval career has been marked by “could have and would have” experiences – he crashed, again, on the final lap of a 500-mile race; had Sato finished fourth, the margin of victory for RHR in the title sweepstakes would have been one, not three points.

Ed Carpenter holds his own umbrella in the searing Auto Club Speedway heat
Anne Proffit photo

It was an All-American night, with Carpenter taking the race and Hunter-Reay the championship. The naysayers that have been on INDYCAR’s case for not having top American drivers can now shut the f up for six months while waiting for the next season to begin.

As the race went on during the night, I turned to someone and said, “I think Eddie might win this thing.” I think it was Stefan Johansson, RHR’s first team owner. While I’m glad to have been right about Carpenter’s second INDYCAR victory, the first coming at Kentucky Speedway in 2011 when he drove for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, I’m happy, as well, to see that he did it the exact same way (well, kinda), by slipstreaming past four-time champion Dario Franchitti.

If INDYCAR gets a good schedule together with more ovals – Pocono is looking good for, perhaps a Triple Crown – and teams return to a better engine formula next year (we all know Lotus is history at this point), the 2013 season could be as watchable as this year has been. It’s up to the fans – and there were plenty more than even I expected in Fontana on Saturday night (a bunch of brave souls with the temps over 100 much of the day) – to come out and watch, to turn on the television and to give folks like myself a reason to write, to photograph and to share.

By Anne Proffit

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