Ryan Hunter-Reay beat Will Power to the 2012 IndyCar championship after a nail-biting final race at the Auto Club Speedway.
The pair started well back in the pack but the race was shaped when an early pass by Power went wrong. The Penske driver had nosed ahead of Hunter-Reay when his car snapped out of control and into the barrier – narrowly missing Hunter-Reay on its way.
Now Hunter-Reay was on a mission to finish high enough to beat Power in the championship – no easy task in a car which did not appear to be handling well. Matters were made more difficult for him when Penske completed a hasty repair job on Power’s car and sent him out so he could limp around 11 laps to move up to 24th pace – worth an extra two places.
That meant Hunter-Reay’s target for the title was fifth place. This he achieved when Tagliani – the very driver who had compromised his championship effort at Sonoma – hit the wall. But more drama followed after the next restart: Tony Kanaan crashed and with less than ten laps to go the red flag was thrown to ensure there would be time for more green-flag running at the finish.
Hunter-Reay held third as the final laps began. But he was passed by Dixon and with Sato threatening and Power’s team mate Castroneves ripping through the field after a late tyre-change he looked in danger of slipping to sixth. That would have cost him the title by a point.
As the final lap began Sato launched an attack on Hunter-Reay but – in a repeat of the conclusion of the Indianapolis 500 – spun off into the barriers. Like Power, he came perilously close to taking Hunter-Reay with him. But with that the field was neutralised and Hunter-Reay could finally relax in the knowledge he had done enough to secure the title.
The absorbing championship contest took some of the attention away from a sterling drive by Ed Carpenter, who claimed his second career victory ahead of outgoing champion Dario Franchitti.
But it was a desperate outcome for Power, who for the third year running finished second in the points having gone into the final round in the hunt for the title.
After the terrible end to last year’s championship this was a fitting end to an often excellent season of racing. It’s a pity it has to come to an end so soon, particularly as Dixon and Castroneves closed back within range of the championship leaders at the finale.
Next year’s IndyCar calendar will be announced soon and is expected to be expanded over this year’s truncated 15-race schedule. After the action-packed season we’ve had – especially on the ovals – I’ve certainly got an appetite for more.
1. Ryan Hunter-Reay – 468
2. Will Power – 465
3. Scott Dixon – 435
4. Helio Castroneves – 431
5. Simon Pagenaud – 387
6. Ryan Briscoe – 370