Hunter-Reay, Power in a good place
INDIANAPOLIS -- If history is anything to go by, there is an 85 percent probability that Ryan Hunter-Reay will become the 2012 Izod IndyCar Series champion.
Hunter-Reay has won three consecutive IndyCar races (at Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto) to take a 34-point lead over Will Power in the standings.
Problem is, Power also won three consecutive races earlier in the season (Alabama, Long Beach and Brazil) on the way to establishing a 45-point cushion -- an advantage that was wiped away by Hunter-Reay's current hot streak.
Call them 50-50 co-favorites for the championship, because scoring three race wins in a row is a relatively rare feat. In fact, it has been accomplished just 20 times in Indy car racing over the past 35 years.
After 17 of those 20 occasions, the driver who racked up a trifecta of race wins went on to claim the series championship.
The roster of three-peaters reads like a who's who of Indy car racing over the past four decades: Rahal. Fittipaldi. Andretti (Michael, though Mario also did it several times in the 1960s). Unser (Al Jr.). Zanardi. Bourdais. Wheldon.
Statistically speaking, the record is clear. If an Indy car driver puts together a hot streak that encompasses at least three consecutive race wins, it usually leads to a series championship.
Until this year, there was only one occasion when two drivers put together three-race win streaks during the same championship season. So what's going to happen down the stretch between Power and Hunter-Reay -- not to mention the likes of Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan and the remaining drivers still mathematically in championship contention?
That's a tough one to call, because the introduction of new cars and engines into the IndyCar Series has, as was somewhat expected, upset the typical form chart.
With the return of manufacturer competition, engine reliability is a factor for the first time in nearly a decade, and Dixon and Hinchcliffe have been hit particularly hard in that department.
Recent front-runners Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, and their drivers, have occasionally struggled to balance the Dallara DW12 chassis, allowing Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport to return to the fore.
And there's the general unpredictability of Indy car road races, in which incidents, pace car delays, strategy and flat-out luck often play a big part in the outcome. Four of the five remaining events are at road racing venues, and the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in California is a crapshoot in its own right: the first 500-mile Indy car race outside of Indianapolis in a decade.
Of course, three-race win streaks are not the only way to win a championship. Although he has won 31 races in his career (tying him with Bourdais for most among active drivers) Dario Franchitti has never strung together three race wins in a row. Yet he's a four-time IndyCar Series champion.
With that in mind, let's look back at some notable three-race (and four-race) win streaks from the past and see what role they played in the overall championship campaign. ...
• 1986 -- Bobby Rahal's title chase got off to a slow start, as his win in the Indianapolis 500 was negated by three finishes of 15th place or lower in the first seven races. But Rahal won five of the next eight races, including consecutive triumphs at Mid-Ohio, Sanair and Michigan to notch the first of his three CART-sanctioned championships.
• 1989 -- Emerson Fittipaldi's three-race win streak came during a great eight-race stretch in which he finished lower than third only once. Emmo followed up his Indy 500 win with a DNF at Milwaukee, but he then won at Detroit, Portland and Cleveland and added seconds at Toronto and Michigan to build an unassailable championship lead.
• 1990 -- Al Unser Jr. became the first modern-era driver to win four consecutive races (Toronto, Michigan, Denver, Vancouver) and cruised to his first CART championship.
• 1991 -- Despite putting together the most statistically dominant season in the modern era with eight race wins, Michael Andretti came from behind in the points and didn't clinch the championship until the final race. This was a classic tortoise-versus-hare battle as the consistent Bobby Rahal (one win, 13 top-4 finishes) pushed Andretti to the limit. Michael responded with four wins in the last five races, including the trifecta of Vancouver, Mid-Ohio and Road America.
• 1994 -- Al Unser Jr. again pretty much led the championship from start to finish as Team Penske claimed 1-2-3 in the CART standings. Junior's notable achievement during this title run was a pair of three-race win streaks -- Long Beach, Indianapolis and Milwaukee early in the season, then Mid-Ohio, New Hampshire and Vancouver -- to seal the deal.
• 1997-98 -- Alex Zanardi went on a hot streak in each of his championship seasons, winning at Michigan, Mid-Ohio and Road America to rally from behind in 1997. He went one better with a four-race win streak in 1998, using street course triumphs at Detroit, Portland, Cleveland and Toronto to demoralize his competition by midsummer.
• 1998 -- Indy car racing was wild and unpredictable during the early years of IRL sanction, but Kenny Brack was a consistent enough performer to nail three race wins in a row. Brack held on to take the '98 title after wins in rounds 7-8-9 of 11 (Charlotte, Pikes Peak and Atlanta) propelled him into championship contention.
• 1999 -- A 23-year-old Colombian took the CART series by storm as Juan Pablo Montoya won the Long Beach Grand Prix in his third Indy car start. He also won his next two starts as well, at Nazareth and Brazil, as part of a seven-win campaign that netted him a rare rookie championship.
• 2003 -- Paul Tracy was the most heralded driver in the 2003 CART series, and he lived up to his billing by winning the first three races of the season (St. Petersburg, Monterrey and Long Beach). Tracy maintained the points lead for the rest of the season and won the title.
• Champ Car, 2004-07 -- Although the Champ Car World Series field was not as strong as it was during the CART era, Sebastien Bourdais' achievements from 2004 to 2007 should not be undervalued. Bourdais won the championship in each of those years, with win streaks of at least three races in every season. The honor roll: 2004 (Portland, Cleveland, Toronto); 2005 (Edmonton, San Jose, Denver); 2006 (opened the season with wins at Long Beach, Houston, Monterrey and Milwaukee and overcame AJ Allmendinger's three-race win streak); and 2007 (Long Beach, Houston and Portland).
• IndyCar Series -- Prior to this year's pair of triple winners, Scott Dixon and the late Dan Wheldon were the only drivers to win three races in a row under IndyCar Series sanction. Wheldon won at St. Petersburg, Motegi and Indianapolis in 2005 as he built an early championship lead he would never lose. Meanwhile, Dixon's three consecutive wins in the latter part of the 2007 title chase (Watkins Glen, Nashville and Mid-Ohio) weren't quite enough; with the championship in sight, he ran out of fuel on the final lap of the season at Chicagoland Speedway, handing the trophy to Dario Franchitti.