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Advantage Power As Final Weekend Begins

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 14 2012

Will Power got off to a fast start at Fontana. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Championship leader Will Power exited a day-long practice at Auto Club Speedway with a pronounced psychological advantage over runnerup Ryan Hunter-Reay, as preparations continue for Saturday night’s IZOD IndyCar Series MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships season-finale.

Team Penske’s Power emerged as third-fastest of 22 cars testing during an eight-hour private session Wednesday around the D-shaped, 2-mile oval in Fontana, Calif., lapping at 215.761 mph in the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet. The session was paced by Scott Dixon at 215.861 mph after 131 laps in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda. Marco Andretti, Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport teammate, posted a lap of 215.779 mph in the No. 26 Team RC Cola Dallara/Chevrolet.

“It’s a good start to the weekend for the team,” said Power, who has a 17-point lead (453-436) over Hunter-Reay. “The car was good and we just kept getting better and better as the day went on. I think we’re in pretty good shape for qualifying. We’re ready. Now we just need to go out and get it done.”

The series-leading five-time pole-winner in 2012, Power spent most of the day atop the speed chart before finishing third-quickest. The top 17 cars were separated by 0.4053-seconds heading into Friday’s 90-minute practice session beginning at 1:45 p.m. (EDT) followed by qualifying at 5:15 p.m.

Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, waited-out a five-hour break for repairs after he spun the No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda Dallara/Chevy and made contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier. After the car’s suspension was repaired and a damaged engine replaced, Hunter-Reay completed another 20 laps with 40 minutes remaining.

“The car was pretty loose on the first run and we went for a second run on it,” said Hunter-Reay, who has two short-oval victories this season. “We probably got a little greedy with it as light as we were running on downforce (in qualifying trim). It’s not that big of a setback.”

The season finale is the first 500-mile race other than the Indianapolis 500 run under INDYCAR or Champ Car sanction since 2002 – an event won by current KV Racing Technology co-owner Jimmy Vasser  at Auto Club Speedway. Vasser prevailed with an average speed of 197.995 mph.

At stake is a championship that will pay the winner a $1 million bonus. Power’s mission is simple –beat Hunter-Reay and he will secure his first series championship.

“It’s going to be obviously a tough race, 500 miles,” Power said during a teleconference. “I’ve been in this position for the last two years. We just focus on the job that we have to do to execute on the day. The rest will work itself out. Either we’ll be champion or we won’t.

“I think just naturally the more experience you get, the more knowledge you have about situations, how to react in certain situations, and probably become a better, more experienced driver. The approach is the same every weekend. You go into the race to win it. Really, you go into the race to make the most of every situation as it presents itself.”

With 50 points available to the winner of each IndyCar Series race – as well as one point for the pole award and two points for leading the most laps – more than 30 possibilities exist for Hunter-Reay to win his first title.

“I definitely like the position we’re in, chasing,” said Hunter-Reay, winner of the most recent event on the Streets of Baltimore. “We’ve been doing that for most of the year. I think we’ve been getting better at it. We need to go out and focus on winning. That’s really what it’s going to be about. The race that we have in the first 250 (miles) is going to be a lot different than we have in the last 250. We could see a lot of comers-and-goers. It’s going to be changing the entire time.”

The race will be televised live at 7:30 p.m. (EDT) by NBC Sports Network and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network on SiriusXM (Sirius 212 and XM 94) and www.indycar.com.

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves is determined to finish third in the final IndyCar Series standings, which would be his best championship result since 2008.

The only Team Penske driver with actual race experience at Auto Club Speedway, Castroneves has two pole starts and has finished in the top-10 six times in eight starts at ACS from 1998-2005.

Castroneves holds a one-point lead over Scott Dixon entering the race. A podium finish would be the 70th of Helio’s open-wheel career (12th on the all-time list); a second-place finish would be his 30th (tying Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt Jr. and Al Unser Jr.). Dixon also has 29 runnerup results.

“It is going to be very competitive out there and I’m excited to see how the championship plays out over the 500 miles,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Auto Club of Southern California Dallara/Chevrolet. “Our car has felt strong all year long thanks to my crew and Chevrolet, and hopefully we can finish with an awesome race.”

Castroneves placed sixth during Wednesday’s practice with a speed of 214.666 mph. The 2003 and 2004 pole-winner at Fontana saw his times improve as the track got closer to expected race conditions.

Wade Cunningham has replaced Mike Conway in the No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda fielded by A.J. Foyt Racing for Saturday’s race, a decision prompted after Conway asked to sit-out the event.

“I’m truly sorry for putting the team and our sponsors in a difficult position, but this is the hardest decision I have ever made in my racing career,” said Conway, a native of Great Britain. “I’ve come to realize I’m not comfortable on the ovals and no longer wish to compete on them. I want to stress that I am not finished racing and to this end, I would love to continue with Foyt Racing, but that’s something we need to discuss in the future.”

After talking with Conway, Team Director Larry Foyt contacted Cunningham, who lives in Indianapolis, and asked him to drive this weekend. Cunningham had driven for the team in the No. 41 ECAT/ABC Supply Honda during this year’s Indianapolis 500.

“Fortunately, Wade was available to drive for us, and we’re looking forward to working with him again,” Larry Foyt said. “Mike’s been a great asset to our team, and I’m disappointed that we can’t finish-out the season together. However, it took a lot of courage for Mike to come forward and we respect him highly for that and we certainly want to honor his decision.”

Cunningham, the 2005 Firestone Indy Lights champion who has three victories on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Firestone Freedom 100, made three IndyCar Series starts in 2011. He competed in his first Indianapolis 500 in May (started 26th and finished 31st; out with an electrical issue) in a Foyt Racing entry.

“I didn’t get to do any racing at Indy and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to race again,” Cunningham said. “I’m pleased that I must have done something right in May to get the phone call.

“We start behind the 8-ball because the whole field has tested in the last two weeks. We just have to bring ourselves up to speed one step at a time and really just make smart gains. You have to have realistic expectations when you show up like this at the last minute.”

Cunningham logged track time on Thursday, with Beaux Barfield, INDYCAR president of competition, and Kevin Blanch, IndyCar Series technical director, observing the laps. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that (Cunningham) gets comfortable on the oval,” Barfield said. “We have unlimited time, so we’ll watch him closely.”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has competed in all 10 previous Indy-car races at Auto Club Speedway, highlighted by a victory with Jimmy Vasser in 2002 and four podiums. The No. 15 Dallara/Honda with Takuma Sato will be the team’s 20th open-wheel entry at ACS. RLR will honor the memory of Scott Roembke, team chief operating officer who died on Sept. 9, by placing decals with his initials on its race cars and by wearing black armbands at the IndyCar Series event and American Le Mans Series race at Virginia International Raceway.

The Firestone Firehawk tire specification selected for Auto Club Speedway is identical to the spec used for the Firestone 550k at the high-banked, 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth in June. … Oriol Servia of Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will make his sixth start at Auto Club Speedway, including two in Indy Lights. He clinched the 1999 Indy Lights championship at the track. … Stars of the IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights will cap off the 2012 season during an awards ceremony at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 2012 INDYCAR Championship Celebration will take place Dec. 6, in conjunction with the opening night of the International Motorsports Industry Show (IMIS) in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Pagoda Pavilion will serve as the ceremony venue, followed by a reception in the famed Pagoda. IMS hosted the INDYCAR Championship Celebration in 2006 and 2007. A limited amount of tickets will be available to the public for purchase, with details to be announced.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 14 2012
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