For the last decade, NASCAR has utilized a playoff-style format – the Chase for the Sprint Cup – to determine the champion of its top-tier series. But INDYCAR has not done the same thing for its IZOD IndyCar Series.
The latter is all the better for it. Because while the Chase is designed to juice things up by resetting the field for the final 10 races of the Sprint Cup season, there’s something to be said about INDYCAR opting to let its competitors settle their title disputes on their own and without gimmicks.
In each of the last seven seasons, the IZOD IndyCar Series championship has come down to the final race of the year. And with the 2013 campaign winding down, it seems like a good time to take a quick look back on all of those thrilling battles from 2006-2012.
2006 – Sam Hornish Jr. over Dan Wheldon
The entire ’06 season was basically a duel between Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves versus Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon. The foursome earned 12 wins in that year’s 14-race schedule, and they were the ones to duke it out for the title in the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway.
Castroneves entered the Windy City with a one-point edge on Hornish, but on race day, a speeding penalty on pit road forced him to rally from the back of the field. He made it back toward the front but problems with lapped traffic caused him to finish fourth. Wheldon and Dixon took a 1-2 finish for Ganassi, but Hornish’s third-place finish ensured that he would win the title on a tiebreaker – his four wins besting Wheldon’s two.
2007 – Dario Franchitti over Scott Dixon
Dixon started to set the stage for a dramatic ’07 finale against Franchitti with a second-place finish at Kentucky that pulled him within eight points of the Scotsman. Then he moved into the championship lead with a win at Sonoma that came about after Franchitti made late-race contact with Marco Andretti.
But things got even more heated at Detroit, when an incident on the penultimate lap involving Scott Dixon and Buddy Rice sent the former into a spin (and the latter into the tire barriers). Franchitti tried to go to the outside of the spinning Dixon, but Dixon’s car then moved across and blocked Franchitti.
Franchitti was still able to finish sixth and headed to Chicagoland with a three-point lead over Dixon. Fittingly enough, the two drivers fought each other over the final 50 laps for the win and the championship. But on the last lap, Dixon’s car ran out of fuel in Turn 3 while leading the race, enabling Franchitti to zip past and take the IndyCar title in dramatic fashion.
2008 – Scott Dixon over Helio Castroneves
Castroneves did his best to whittle down his deficit in the standings to Dixon late in the ’08 season. In Sonoma, Castroneves took the checkered flag and chopped the gap to 43 points with two races left. Detroit saw him penalized for blocking late in the race, but while it cost him the win, he still moved within 30 points of Dixon going to Chicagoland for the finale.
There, Castroneves did everything he could do right. Despite starting dead last after running below the white line during qualifying, Castroneves still managed to win the race by .0033 of a second. The only problem? Dixon, a six-time race winner in ’08, was there with him at the finish – netting a runner-up result that garnered him a second IndyCar title by 17 points over the Brazilian.
2009 – Dario Franchitti over Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe
Briscoe emerged as Team Penske’s lead driver over the winter and took a 25-point lead over Franchitti into the final two races after his third win of the season at Chicagoland, the third-to-last race of the year. That put him in position to beat the pair of Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates.
But an incident leaving pit lane at Motegi, the second-to-last race, left him 18th on the day and with a minimum 12 points achieved. The Target teammates went 1-2 there, led by Dixon. Then at the finale in Homestead, a fuel mileage derby, Franchitti ran slower but pitted one less time; DIxon and Briscoe needed a final splash of fuel in the last eight laps. That left Franchitti, back in IndyCar after a year’s sojourn to NASCAR, champion with 616 points to Dixon’s 605, and Briscoe’s 604.
2010 – Dario Franchitti over Will Power
On the strength of five victories, most in the field in 2010, Will Power was poised to capture his first championship in his first full season with Team Penske. It all went for naught though at the final race in Homestead, where Power entered with a 12-point lead over Franchitti.
There, Franchitti took pole and Power qualified third. Needing to at least shade Franchitti or hope the Scotsman didn’t win the race, Power made the first of his title-losing mistakes – with contact in the wall between Turn 3 and 4. His crew worked valiantly to get him back out but he retired after 143 laps with suspension damage. That left Franchitti firmly in the driver’s seat and with eighth place and Power 25th, Franchitti won the title by five, 602-597, over Power.
2011 – Dario Franchitti over Will Power
Power had six wins to Franchitti’s four entering what became, unfortunately, the season finale in Kentucky. The Australian led the Scotsman by 11 points going into Kentucky, 542-531. Power took pole at Kentucky and despite a dominant first half of the race, contact when Ana Beatriz hit Power’s left side sidepod put a dent in his chances. He raced the rest of the day with the aero deficiencies and finished 18th.
Franchitti, meanwhile, lost in a photo finish to Ed Carpenter in Carpenter’s first career win and the first for Sarah Fisher Racing. Franchitti carried an 18-point lead, 573-555, over Power into Las Vegas. The Las Vegas race, however, saw neither driver qualify well (Power 17th, Franchitti 18th in the 34-car field). Power was then caught up in the horrific, 16-car pileup through Turns 1 and 2 that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon. The race was canceled and the points final as of Kentucky, with Franchitti claiming his third consecutive championship.
2012 – Ryan Hunter-Reay over Will Power
Sensing a theme here? Power came second yet again in the title chase after entering the season finale with a lead for the third straight year. After flops at Homestead and Kentucky, the 2012 season finale was held at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana (Power led by 17 points over the resilient Ryan Hunter-Reay).
Again, while neither driver started well (Power 13th, Hunter-Reay 22nd in the 26-car field), they ran in tandem for the first portion of the race. On lap 55, it happened again – Power hit a bump between Turns 1 and 2 and lost control, spinning out, hitting the wall and narrowly avoiding Hunter-Reay. “RHR” prevailed with fourth place – even despite Power’s crew again performing a heroic effort to get him back out and gain two more points – and the American duly captured his first championship by three points over Power (468-465).
Jimmie Johnson’s run of titles from 2006 through 2010 removed some drama from NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup in those years. The 2010 showdown versus Denny Hamlin was perhaps the most memorable, when Johnson overcame a deficit in the last two races. But in the last two years, battles between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (2011) and Brad Keselowski and Johnson (2012) have come down to the wire. The 2011 season ended in a tie, with Stewart beating Edwards thanks to winning more races.