Ed Carpenter slides past Franchitti to win race, Ryan Hunter-Reay sneaks past Power to win championship

Credit Michael L. Levitt/INDYCAR/LAT USA

It came down to the last lap of the last race. Every corner of every lap had counted. Every second of every pit stop had been vital. Every car passed meant something, every position crucial.

No, I’m not talking about the 2012 Race for the Chase. Nor am I talking about the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship.

While 18-year-old, too-new-to-even-be-a-rookie Ryan Blaney earned his first win in a top-tier NASCAR series in a cornfield in Iowa, 31-year-old veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay battled 31-year-old Will Power for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Championship at Auto Club Speedway in California.  Hunter-Reay emerged victorious in an epic duel befitting what was arguably the most exciting season since the IZOD IndyCar series was born from the merger of the CART/CWSS and the IRL.

Ed Carpenter, also 31, survived 500 eventful laps to claim his only win of the season in the Ed Carpenter Racing No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. The MAVTV 500 ended under caution as, in an echo of the Indianapolis 500 finish, Takuma Sato crashed trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead on the last lap. This time Carpenter, who had led a race-high eight times for 61 laps, shot past Franchitti before the yellow flag flew.

Credit: Jamey Price/INDYCAR/LAT USA
The series’ first visit to Fontana since 2005 started with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement that Power led Hunter-Reay by only 17 points in the championship standings. Trepidation at the series finishing the season on an oval track after last season’s tragedy as well as  the 1999 death of Greg Moore at the speedway in the CART season finale.

Marco Andretti started from the pole for the first time since 2008. Tony Kanaan passed Andretti to lead the first lap, but Andretti passed him back to lead Lap 2 and the race was on.

On Lap 54, the twists began. Power spun in Turn 2, making hard contact with the SAFER Barrier and taking his championship dreams out of his hands and putting them into the cockpits of the other competitors. With Power out, Hunter-Reay had to finish sixth or better to win the Astor Cup. The remainder of the race tested the mettle of the No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda team and kept fans on the edges of their seats, especially when Power’s Penske Racing team managed to get his car back on the track for an additional 11 laps – enough to finish 24th and making Hunter-Reay’s magic number shrink to fifth.

One by one, leaders met with either the wall or mechanical issues. JR Hildebrand on Lap 73, Alex Tagliani on Lap 230. Tony Kanaan, who was racing for the AJ Foyt Oval Championship, spun on Lap 240, strewing debris across the track. In a controversial decision, rookie race director Beaux Barfield called for the red flag on Lap 242, setting up the eight-lap shootout with Dario Franchitti leading and Hunter-Reay needing five positions to secure the championship. Sato restarted fourth behind Hunter-Reay, but passed him trying to get to the front. When Sato crashed, it gave Hunter-Reay the spot he needed to win the Drivers Championship as well as the Oval Championship.

The win by Andretti Autosport’s Hunter-Reay marks the first time an American has held the title since Sam Hornish Jr. won in 2006. It's also the third year that Power went into the finale with the points lead and emerged in second place. Last season he was involved in the 17-car melee that claimed the life of Dan Wheldon, giving the championship to Dario Franchitti despite the fact that the race was stopped. In 2010, Power crashed on Lap 143 and lost the championship to Franchitti by a scant five points.

For the first time since the merger, Chevrolet manufactured engines for the series and both Hunter-Reay's team Andretti Autosport and Power's team Penske Racing used them. The DW12 chassis built by Dallara that were tested extensively by the late Dan Wheldon and ultimately named for him proved to be tough, yet still produced some of the best racing seen in many seasons.

Complete race results:

Pos.          Driver                                  Laps        Status   
1    Ed Carpenter 250 running
2    Dario Franchitti 250 running
3    Scott Dixon 250 running
4    Ryan Hunter-Reay 250 running
5    Helio Castroneves 250 running
6    Graham Rahal 250 running
7    Takuma Sato 249 crash
8    Marco Andretti 249 running
9    Katherine Legge 249 running
10    Charlie Kimball 249 running
11    J.R. Hildebrand 248 running
12    James Jakes 248 running
13    James Hinchcliffe 247 running
14    Wade Cunningham 246 running
15    Simon Pagenaud 246 running
16    Josef Newgarden 244 running
17    Ryan Briscoe 244 running
18    Tony Kanaan 240 crash
19    Oriol Servia 231 running
20    Alex Tagliani 229 crash
21    Sebastian Saavedra 118 electrical
22    Rubens Barrichello 107 mechanical
23    Justin Wilson 80 mechanical
24    Will Power 66 crash
25    E.J. Viso 65 mechanical
26    Simona de Silvestro 16 mechanical

Ed Carpenter slides past Franchitti to win race, Ryan Hunter-Reay sneaks past Power to win championship Ed Carpenter slides past Franchitti to win race, Ryan Hunter-Reay sneaks past Power to win championship Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Monday, September 17, 2012 Rating: 5