Last year Ryan Hunter-Reay prevailed in a nail-biting finale at Fontana after title rival Will Power crashed out.
This time two different combatants are going up against each other: Power?óÔé¼Ôäós Penske team mate Helio Castroneves and Ganassi?óÔé¼Ôäós 2003 and 2008 champion Scott Dixon.
Both teams have tweaked their driver line-up ahead of the final race, though one of them has done so out of necessity. Dario Franchitti was injured in a shocking crash on the final lap of the last race in Houston, leaving Alex Tagliani to take over alongside Dixon.
At Penske AJ Allmendinger returns again to swell their ranks to three cars.
Castroneves will need the support. He led the championship for 12 consecutive races until Houston, where a string of misfortunes in the double-header weekend handed the initiative, and the points lead, to Dixon.
Castroneves needs to win with several cars between him and Dixon to halt Penske?óÔé¼Ôäós frustrating series of championship defeats in recent years.
Last year Power was on the cusp of passing Hunter-Reay when he spun into the wall. Despite remarkable work by his mechanics to get the car back on track so he could pick up an extra few points, he was unable to keep his Andretti Autosport rival from the title.
It was a reminder of Power?óÔé¼Ôäós similar defeat two years earlier, when a brush with the wall ended his hopes of beating Franchitti. In the intervening year Franchitti kept Power from the title again on that black day in Las Vegas when the race was abandoned following Dan Wheldon?óÔé¼Ôäós fatal crash.
Pride is also at stake between engine manufacturers. Chevrolet held sway at the beginning of the season but Honda hit back at Pocono, the second of three 500-mile races, where Dixon began a string of three consecutive victories. There?óÔé¼Ôäós a twist in the tale too: long-time Honda users Ganassi are set to switch camps after Sunday?óÔé¼Ôäós race.
Sustaining average speeds of 345kph (216mph) for 500 miles at Fontana inevitably asks huge questions of engine performance, economy and above all reliability. For that reason Castroneves has already elected to change his Chevrolet V6 for a fresh unit and accept the automatic ten-place grid penalty.
In what has been an extraordinarily competitive season the championship contenders will have no expectation of having the battle for victory to themselves. This has the makings of being just as much a tense, white-knuckle thrill ride as last year?óÔé¼Ôäós race was.
IndyCar championship points so far
Here?óÔé¼Ôäós how the top ten drivers have scored so far this year:
How the title can be won
Dixon holds the whip hand with 546 points to Castroneves’ 521. Assuming he at least places within the top 33 (highly likely given IndyCar’s current grid sizes) that leaves his rival needing at least fifth place to claim the title.
The availability of a bonus point for pole position and fastest lap, and two further points for whoever leads the most laps may help Castroneves cut the gap, but Dixon has just as much chance of claiming these for himself.
In any situation, a finish of fifth or higher for Dixon will guarantee him the title regardless of what Castroneves does.
F1 Fanatic Live
We?óÔé¼Ôäóve followed every round of the IndyCar championship on F1 Fanatic Live this year and we won?óÔé¼Ôäót be missing this one!
Join us at 3am on Sunday morning to keep abreast of all the action from Fontana.
- IndyCar title goes to the wire at sombre Sonoma
- Justin Wilson, 1978-2015
- The F1 world pauses to remember Justin Wilson
- Justin Wilson dies from crash injuries
- Wilson crash overshadows penultimate IndyCar race
Image ?é?® Chris Jones