By Martin Henderson
Will Power won the most satisfying race of his life, but Scott Dixon won the IZOD IndyCar Series championship after a grueling 500 miles at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Saturday night.
Power finished 1.48 seconds ahead of last year’s race winner, Ed Carpenter, and Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, to seize his third win of the season, the 21st of his career.
But the attention of the night race—delayed 20 minutes because of the glare of the setting sun facing Turn 3—around the 2-mile D-shaped oval built by Roger Penske belonged to Dixon and Helio Castroneves.
Castroneves, winner of three Indy 500s and one Mirror Ball Trophy from Dancing with the Stars, was seeking his first championship. Once again, he fell short of making his resume complete.
Instead, Dixon won his third title, each separated by five years. He won in 2003 and 2008, as well. And, for only the second time in the last eight years, the driver leading the championship going into the last race actually won the championship. The only other driver to do it: Dixon himself, in 2008. The driver chasing him then? Castroneves.
Dixon, who won four of the last nine races, acknowledged his titles came at different points in his career.
“The first one I was young and didn’t really understand what I had won,” Dixon said. “It was my first year in the series. My perspective when I was 22 or 23 of what I did and what I understand now is totally different. The competitiveness of the series has gone through the roof since the merge of the series in ’08 (which) was a dream year. We (wife Emma) got married in 2008, won the Indy 500 and won the championship. It’s pretty hard to beat that. This year was far different because mid-season we didn’t think we had a shot at the championship.”
Before winning the 500 mile race at Pocono—in which he also started 17th—Dixon was in seventh place in the championship. Even though he finished with a flourish, he ran over a crew member of Power's and was penalized to finish 15th at Sonoma, and Power crashed into him resulting in an 18th at Baltimore.
With three races left, he trailed Castroneves by 49 points. He won by 27.
Dixon finished the race fifth, sandwiched between James Hinchcliffe and Castroneves.
Castroneves gave Dixon plenty to worry about. Although Castroneves took the green flag 12th—he was penalized 10 grid positions after qualifying because of an unapproved Chevrolet engine change—he had moved to third place in the first six laps. On Lap 82, he took the lead—he led 27 laps overall—and at times, he led the championship based on running order.
But the race was 500 miles, and it took a tremendous toll on man and machine. Justin Wilson suffered a broken pelvis in a six-car crash, and only eight of the 25 cars that started were actually running at the checkered flag.
Only five cars finished on the lead lap, and sixth-place Castroneves was not one of them. He finished a lap down, largely because he suffered a penalty when Penske told him to pit when the pits were closed on Lap 212.
“Sorry about that,” the legendary owner told his driver over the radio.
“It was a crazy day,” Dixon said. “We had to work on a bit of strategy, we had to work on the car a lot, and then we had an issue with some overheating problems towards the end. I still can’t believe we’ve won the championship. It’s fantastic.”
Overheating caused by debris on the track took its toll on engines, so there was always a chance Dixon could have suffered a fatal engine failure. The Target Honda owned by Chip Ganassi had overheating issues, but Dixon and the team nursed it to the end.
It was the last race for Ganassi's team using Honda power. He announced he is switching to Chevrolet next season. Power’s victory gave Chevy the manufacturer’s championship.
Power said he was spurned on by a comment made last year when Power was trying to win the championship and Ed Carpenter said he didn’t think Power could win a title at this track. Power crashed, allowing Ryan Hunter-Reay to steal the championship from him.
“It’s the most satisfying win of my life,” Power said after climbing from his Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “That is the most satisfying thing I have ever done. And I wanted to do it so badly all year.”
Power finished the season on a high note, winning three of the last five races.
There were 28 lead changes among 11 drivers. Power led a race-high 103 laps. Hunter-Reay, a former resident of Dana Point, led 45 and finished ninth, eight laps behind the winner. Sebastien Bourdais led 35 laps and might have given Marina del Rey-based Dragon Racing and owner Jay Penske—Roger Penske’s son—his first victory. Bourdais was running in the top three when he crashed on Lap 230. He finished 12th.
Dixon pitted under the caution and took tires and cleaned his radiator as he babied his Target Honda to the finish. Power overtook Camarillo's Charlie Kimball after the restart on the Lap 237 and led the rest of the way.
Kimball, Dixon’s teammate, suffered an engine failure and finished 10th in the race, but he moved up to ninth in the standings.
With Wilson’s crash taking out six cars, Castroneves’ only hope of winning the championship hinged on him finishing first or second.
“We fought hard, definitely pushed as hard as we could,” Castroneves said. “Congrats to Ganassi and Scott. Unfortunately, one weekend for us that went bad cost us the championship.”
That was the doubleheader in Houston two weeks ago when Castroneves suffered mechanical failure and finished 23rd and 22nd while Dixon finished first and second.
Saturday was a rough night those following Southern California storylines, including former Newport Beach resident Oriol Servia, who got his major open wheel racing career started in Rancho Santa Margarita driving for owner Cal Wells III. He finished 19th.
Servia, currently a Santa Monica resident driving for Panther Racing in the last race it has with sponsorship from the National Guard, was among six cars involved in Wilson’s crash on Lap 111. Wilson not only suffered the non-operable pelvis injury, but a small pulmonary contusion and will undergo an MRI on his back, which he has broken previously.
Wilson lost the rear and spun around when his right rear got caught on one of the seams on the track. Wilson was T-boned by Tristan Vautier. Servia went high to avoid Wilson, and was struck on the side by Josef Newgarden in a violent collision. James Jakes and Simona de Silvestro got caught up as well. De Silvestro finished eighth, three laps behind.
“I didn’t see him before I hit him,” Vautier said. “There was just a big cloud of smoke. We were worried for Justin when he couldn’t’ get out of the car but apparently he’s OK.”
Kimball, the diabetic driver from Camarillo, looked like he was headed for a podium finish when his engine expired on Lap 238. He said overheating was not an issue.
Team owner Bryan Herta of Valencia put J.R. Hildebrand in the Barracuda Racing Honda and was running second on Lap 236 when he suffered a mechanical failure. He finished 11th.
Takuma Sato, whose season began with such promise driving for A.J. Foyt, failed to finish the race for the ninth time in 10 races. Sato, who won the Grand Prix of Long Beach and led the championship heading into the Indianapolis 500, retired his Honda with a mechanical issue after 144 laps. He finished 17th.
Honda Performance Development, based in Valencia, had only one car in the top nine: Dixon.