FONTANA, CA—The final race of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season turned out to be a "Dream Sequence."
For the series champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay, he never gave up on his dream of not only competing against but beating the best drivers in the world as he became the first driver from the United States to win the IndyCar championship since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006.
Indianapolis 500 didn't realize that 500 victory would come in the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway, instead of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which is his family's heritage.
But for Team Penske driver Will Power, this dream had the same nightmarish outcome that he has experienced the past three years. He's entered the final race of the season as the IZOD IndyCar Series points leader only to crash out and lose the championship.
The final race of the IZOD IndyCar Series season has become Power's version of "Ground Hog Day" as the driver from Australia lives the same day over and over and over.
Perhaps the best driver in the IndyCar Series Power's inability to win a championship has made him the "Greg Norman of IndyCar." Norman was an unbelievably talented golfer from Australia who simply faded in the final round of practically every "Major" tournament that he participated in. Some even compared Power to IndyCar's version of the Buffalo Bills as the NFL team went to four-straight Super Bowls only to come up short in every appearance.
Those comparisons are cruel and may be unfair. But one thing is certain Power and his Team Penske crew on the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet displayed the heart of a champion after Power hit one of the asphalt seams on the race track in Turn 2 and crashed hard into the wall on lap 55. When Power spun his car came within a few feet of hitting Hunter-Reay's Dallara/Chevrolet. If both cars had crashed and were unable to continue in the race, Power would have won the title as he entered the contest 17 points ahead of Hunter-Reay.
The entire left side of the car was damaged and it appeared Power's hopes were over.
Not so fast.
If Power's car could be repaired and if he could complete 12 more laps he would finish ahead of E.J. Viso in the final standings. That meant Hunter-Reay would have to finish fifth and not sixth in order to clinch the championship.
More than 20 different Team Penske crew members from all three cars worked feverishly to repair the damaged race car and Power was able to rejoin the race on Lap 124. After completing the 12 laps to guarantee he would finish ahead of Viso and without the prospect of advancing any further in the field, Power's car went back to the garage area, this time for good.
"That's what you have to come prepared for," Cindric said. "That's the way it goes in this business. Some days it's yours and some days it's not. A seam caught him out and that is how he lost control. We have had a good season and all that but you always want more."
That put the pressure on Hunter-Reay, who had to score a top-five finish in order to win the championship. At that point in the race, that certainly wasn't a guarantee because Hunter-Reay's Chevrolet was struggling to keep up, dropping toward the bottom of the top-10.
With Power out of the race and Hunter-Reay struggling the keep up, the battle up front was fierce between Carpenter, Scott Dixon, James Jakes, Dario Franchitti, Alex Tagliani and Tony Kanaan. There were 29 lead changes among 12 drivers in what had turned out to be an outstanding race in IndyCar's return to the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway since 2005.
There were two races going on the one that would determine the first to 500 miles and the race to determine the championship. Both would be filled with drama.
Takuma Sato took the lead on Lap 228 and Hunter-Reay was in sixth-place one position out of clinching the title. Two laps later, he made it to the top-five because Alex Tagliani's car conked on and came to a stop on the race course. When the green flag waved on lap 235, Carpenter was in the lead followed by Sato and Franchitti. Two laps later, Franchitti, this year's Indianapolis 500 winner for the third time in his career, was in front of the field and became to drive away from Carpenter before another yellow flag just nine laps from the finish when Tony Kanaan spun and hit the Turn 1 wall.
One lap later, INDYCAR President of Competition Beaux Barfield made a surprising and controversial decision to stop the race by displaying the red flag.
Hunter-Reay's team owner, Michael Andretti, was livid. Not only did he believe the red flag was unnecessary, it created more pressure and tension on Hunter-Reay as he tried to maintain the top-five position and clinch the championship.
"I don't know why they did that," Andretti said. "It's really disappointing changing rules here on the fly. It's never been done before. It's a first. I just hope it doesn't cost us the championship. But Ryan's car is good and he has something to fight with. The whole year has come down to this and we knew it was going to be a hard fight all night. We told Ryan to keep hanging in there and he did. Let's see if he can win this thing."