FONTANA, Calif. -- The IZOD IndyCar Series' return to Auto Club Speedway on Saturday night for the MAVTV 500 is a bittersweet occasion for longtime fans of the sport.
But it promises to be a heck of a car race.
Many have clamored for the addition of more superspeedway races to the IndyCar schedule, and the 2-mile oval built by Roger Penske in 1997 certainly fits the bill. The cherry on top is news that the race will run to that magic number of 500 miles, making it the first 500-miler outside of Indianapolis since 2002.
ACS -- or California Speedway, as it was originally known -- also holds the distinction of being Indy car racing's fastest track. Mauricio Gugelmin was Indy car's first 240 mph man, taking pole position for the 1997 Marlboro 500 with a 240.942 mph average; Gil de Ferran bumped that number up to 241.428 mph in 2000, while Gugelmin still holds the unofficial record with a 242.333 mph practice lap in 1997.
The Cal Speedway races were fast, too. Jimmy Vasser averaged 197.995 mph over 500 miles in 2002 in CART's last appearance, and Sam Hornish Jr. broke the mythical 200 mph barrier by winning an IRL-sanctioned 400-miler a year later at a 207.151 mph average.
But Fontana holds a dark side for fans who have followed Indy car racing for more than the past few years. Greg Moore, regarded as the most promising Indy car driver of his era, was killed at age 24 during the 1999 CART race at California Speedway. Many people believe Moore's death was even more devastating to the sport than the death of Dan Wheldon during the IndyCar Series finale one year ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The other downside to Auto Club Speedway is the likelihood that the 92,000-seat grandstand will be embarrassingly empty Saturday night. Fontana was filled for the first few CART races (admittedly, boosted by huge ticket giveaways from Marlboro and Toyota), but attendance dropped precipitously as the open-wheel war between CART and the IRL raged on into the 21st century. Even NASCAR struggles to sell tickets for its race in what is comically called the Los Angeles market (ACS is an hour away in ideal traffic conditions), and insiders predict a turnout of no more than 20,000 on Saturday night.
That's a shame, because the action on the track is bound to be compelling. With rare exception, the IndyCar Series' new-for-2012 engine and chassis formula has produced exciting, competitive racing on every type of track, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, the fastest ovals so far on this year's schedule.
Then there's the small matter of the championship battle between Will Power of Team Penske and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay. For the seventh year in a row, the IndyCar title chase has gone down to the wire without the benefit of an artificial "playoff" scenario such as the ones used in NASCAR and the NHRA. Power leads Hunter-Reay by 17 points, so the Australian pretty much just needs to keep his rival within sight to clinch his first IndyCar Series crown.
But can he do it? Much is made about Power's relative lack of experience on ovals, but he's not too far behind Hunter-Reay in that regard. RHR has made 48 oval starts since 2003 in CART-, Champ Car- and IRL-sanctioned races, while Power has run 33 oval races since 2006. However, four of Hunter-Reay's eight career race wins were on ovals (all bullrings of a mile or less), whereas Power's sole oval victory out of 18 total wins came at ultra-fast Texas.
In truth, Hunter-Reay wouldn't be in contention for the championship if not for his success this year on short ovals. At Milwaukee and Iowa, his victories helped him outscore Power by 72 points at those two tracks alone. Hunter-Reay is tied with Tony Kanaan in the lead of the chase for INDYCAR's A.J. Foyt Oval Championship with 136 points scored in oval races, while Power ranks just 17th, having scored 74 points.
Still, the championship protagonists can expect to be pretty evenly matched this weekend at Fontana. Power probably can count on more help from teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe than Hunter-Reay is likely to get from Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe; in fact, if Power is not in position to win, it would work to his advantage for his Penske stablemates to run up front because they will take points from Hunter-Reay.
"I have a lot of confidence in the team and good teammates," Power said. "It's been a long time since Team Penske won a championship [2006 with Hornish in the IRL; the team's last title in a unified Indy car series was way back in 1994 with Al Unser Jr. in CART], and we're determined to do it. We're putting in a 100 percent effort every weekend, and there's nothing much more we can do. It's kind of down to how the cards fall. Hopefully they fall our way this year."
Power was somewhat snakebitten in championship deciders the previous two years when he lost the title to Dario Franchitti. He crashed out at Homestead in 2010. Last year at Kentucky, in what turned out to be the last points-paying round of the 2011 schedule, he got swept into a pit lane accident. He also was involved in the multi-car accident that ended up nullifying the intended season finale at Las Vegas.
"If there's a lesson I've learned from the last two years, it's just finishing," Power said. "Getting to the end, for starters, is key for us. I have to say it was me at Homestead in 2010. It was kind of out of my hands at Vegas, but we could have put ourselves in a better situation by qualifying better and avoiding all that mess.
"We've just got to be smart and at least be there in the second half of the race," he added. "We'll spend the first half of the race just understanding the car and be ready for the second half. It's a bloody long race."
The fact that Power has the experience of being involved in his third consecutive championship battle should help his cause, but Hunter-Reay doesn't believe that is the case. Hunter-Reay's best championship finish is seventh place the past two years, but he's confident about his chances this weekend.
"I've learned a lot about myself this year, and it hasn't really packed the pressure on me," he said. "I haven't acted any differently, and it's nice to know that about yourself. I'm enjoying it. We've been keeping it light in the team, and I think our team certainly deserves a championship. Whether we get it remains to be seen, but these guys have worked so hard. And so have I."
There's definitely a high level of mutual respect between the two title challengers, and little of the friction that dominated the championship clash between Power and Franchitti the past two years.
"Will is one of the very best Indy car drivers to come along in a long time, and I've looked up to Team Penske and Roger [Penske, team owner] all my life," Hunter-Reay said. "It's a name synonymous not only with integrity, but winning. But we're right there with him and we've beaten him, too."
"Hunter-Reay is one of the best, if not the best overall driver in the series," countered Power. "He wins at both disciplines [road racing and ovals], he's a tough competitor, very fast, and you can see he's right there in the championship. We need to beat him.
"Having been in this position before, I know that our guys are ready and I am ready. We were able to learn a lot about the track at the test, and now it's time to put it all together."
While attempting to become only the fourth American Indy car champion in the past 20 years -- the others being Hornish, Unser, Jimmy Vasser (CART, 1996) and Bobby Rahal (CART, 1992) -- Hunter-Reay knows the 17-point deficit to Power will be difficult to overcome. But he knows the best way to do it.
"There's not a lot of time and energy wasted on counting points -- we're going out to win the thing," Hunter-Reay said. "It's going to be pretty exciting, and we need a little bit of help from Will. He needs to have a bad day and we need to have a great day, but we have a fight going on.
"After Sonoma [when Alex Tagliani crashed Hunter-Reay out of third place with just a handful of laps remaining], we thought our chance was gone," he added. "But we're using the momentum we have on our side from winning four of the last seven races, including the last two ovals, and we hope to use that to our advantage. It's going to be a tough one to get the job done over 500 miles but this team has shown to be resilient toward the end of races, so I think we just have to approach it like we have for every other race this year.
"We're going to put on a great show."