IndyCar: Four contenders, three races, one champion
WEST ALLIS, WI - Three races, one champion. That's what IndyCar is promoting in its run to a season title that will be awarded at month's end.
Series leader Will Power is quick to point out that there's another number involved, and that's two.
That's two Team Penske drivers, for which he is one, and he's admittedly not all that excited about battling Helio Castroneves for the championship. Neither has won a title in the series, and they know they have to play by Roger Penske's rules to reach their ultimate destination.
Penske's rule: Always consider the big picture, which means putting the team first.
"It would be easier to race someone from another team, for sure," Power said. "You obviously want to be kind of nice on the track. You don't want to be too aggressive."
Power said he could race differently if the opponent were a rival.
"You can take a bit more risk in the way you race them," he said.
Power leads Castroneves by four points heading to Sunday's race at the historic Milwaukee Mile, where oval-track racing dates to 1903. One-time series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012) is 63 points out of the lead, Simon Pagenaud 64.
Hunter-Reay drives for Andretti Autosport, which is owned by Michael Andretti, a co-promoter of the Milwaukee IndyFest. Pagenaud drives for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. He, like the Penske drivers, has not won an IndyCar title.
Two of the final three races -- in consecutive weeks -- will be on oval tracks. Next week, the road course event is at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. The season ends Aug. 30 at Auto Club Speedway, a high-speed banked oval in Fontana, Calif.
Three different tracks, a singular pursuit. Power thinks he's ready for it after falling just a few points short in 2010 and 2011 (to Dario Franchitti) and 2012 (to Hunter-Reay). In each case, the title was decided on the final lap of the season.
"Experience counts," Power said. "I feel like now this is the first year I've gone through the season to now feeling like, yeah, all of the tracks we're going to, there's no weakness there (for me).
"So I definitely feel confident."
Of the four top title contenders, Hunter-Reay has three wins this season, and he's won the past two Milwaukee races and three overall. Power has won two races this year, plus last year's Fontana race. Pagenaud's won twice this season as well, Castroneves once.
Officially, there are 11 drivers still eligible for the title, but only two more are considered reasonably with reach. Still, Juan Pablo Montoya (Team Penske) and Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) have a lot of ground to make up. There are 101 and 108 points out of the lead, respectively. Each has won one race this season.
But it's been a competitive season, and anything remains possible. The separation between first and second place is the closest the series has been since 2009, and there have been five championship lead changes through the first 16 events.
A lot is at stake over the next three weeks.