The Izod IndyCar Series title chase is in the homestretch, with the final three races spread over the next four weeks, led off by Sunday's Grand Prix of Sonoma at the track formerly known as Infineon Raceway.
Team Penske's Will Power regained the championship lead with a second-place finish in IndyCar's last round at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and the Australian is the prohibitive favorite this weekend at a track where he has dominated the past two years.
Power's Sonoma memories aren't all golden; he broke his back there in an accident during a practice session in 2009. And he and the rest of the field will have to adjust to a slightly modified track layout, with three corners changed in an effort to open up more passing zones for Indy cars.
Still, with two consecutive wins from the pole at Sonoma, Power must be licking his chops at the prospect of increasing his 5-point lead over Andretti Autosport team leader Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"It's all about putting a full weekend together, and that's happened for me here the last two times," Power said after an Aug. 17 test session at the road course in California's wine country. "Last year was very special to win in front of all the Verizon people, and it was great to have a Team Penske 1-2-3 with Roger [Penske] up there on the podium. I think it meant a lot to Roger because it had been a long time since he had a 1-2-3."
But Power refuses to get overconfident despite being the defending champion at Sonoma and Baltimore, site of the penultimate round of the championship on Sept. 2. The series finale is a 500-miler set for Sept. 15 at Auto Club Speedway outside of Los Angeles.
Power admitted his neck was sore after a full day of testing at Sonoma, and he grimaced when told that the race has been lengthened from 75 to 85 laps this year.
"The new car has a lot more downforce and it's going to be very quick around here," Power said after running laps in the low 1 minute, 18 seconds range.
Power will be trying to win for the first time since Brazil in early May, when he completed a hat trick of wins to build a 60-point championship lead. But that cushion evaporated when Hunter-Reay went on a three-win streak of his own in June and July, allowing the American to briefly seize the championship lead before a DNF at Mid-Ohio knocked him back to second in the standings.
INDYCAR claims that 15 drivers remain mathematically eligible for the championship. But, in truth, Power's Penske teammate Helio Castroneves (23 points back) and Target Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon (-28) are the only others with a realistic chance.
"The field is insanely close," Power said. "This year, more than the last two years, you haven't seen anyone consistently on pole or consistently winning. No one dominates in this series and it just proves how tough and tight it is. You have to look for so many fine details in your driving to be competitive."
"We were sliding around a lot and we have a lot of work to do to get some more grip into the car," Hunter-Reay said. "This team has struggled here for the last few years, so the engineers are working hard.
"This could be one of our toughest races," he added. "We have to put together three good races and I think we need to finish on the podium pretty often to have a shot at the championship. But we've done it in the past and we can do it again. I'm confident we can challenge for a podium here and hopefully for a win."
Battling for the championship this late in the season is uncharted territory for Hunter-Reay. The past two IndyCar titles were fought between Power and Ganassi's Dario Franchitti, who lies eighth in the standings this year after winning three consecutive IndyCar Series crowns.
"It's where you want to be as a racing driver -- to have a shot at it in the last few races. I'm really having fun with it," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm not feeling nervous or anything like that. I'm taking it all in and enjoying it. You can't be thinking 'I have to win the championship.' You just have to focus on every practice session and every bit of time you get on the track. We need to keep doing what we've been doing the rest of the season. We've had a lot of success and when we get the setup right, we're tough to beat."
Although he was discouraged after suffering engine problems at Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay remains upbeat about his title chances.
"It can really swing quickly over a race weekend," he said. "This has historically been a very strong track for Penske and two of the guys fighting for the championship are in that team. We have to close that gap and it's going to be a challenge for us to do that."
Like Power, Dixon and Castroneves have won in the past at Sonoma. By contrast Hunter-Reay's best finish at the technical road course was eighth place in 2010.
This is the first time Castroneves has been in championship contention since 2009, and he's determined to accomplish the one major goal he has yet to achieve.
"The championship is something that I've been pursuing for a long time, and I have a good opportunity with three races to go," said the Brazilian. "It should be a great race this weekend at Sonoma; the Penske Truck Rental crew certainly have the car and Chevy engine right where they need to be and hopefully we can repeat the good luck from before to get into Victory Lane."
The main focus this weekend is on the revised track layout, which features significant modifications to Turns 7, 9 and 11. All are intended to create additional opportunities for passing -- which in truth has not been as much of a problem in general this year for IndyCar thanks to the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis and turbocharged V-6 engines.
An additional tool for overtaking was introduced at Toronto in the form of a "push-to-pass" horsepower boost. The P2P system was modified at Mid-Ohio, adding a 5-second delay intended to prevent drivers from using the system to defend their position. The delay has been reduced to 3.5 seconds for Sonoma.
The biggest track change at Sonoma is at Turn 7, which has been modified from a three-corner sequence to a simple hairpin. The exit to Turn 9 has been widened by 10 feet, and the short straight between Turns 10 and 11 was lengthened by 200 feet into a slightly wider radius hairpin.
A total of 22 drivers participated in the Aug. 17 test at Sonoma. Franchitti said he was grateful for the track time. His teammate Dixon unofficially paced the test with a lap of 1:17.9.
"It was almost like learning a new track," Franchitti said. "It's just three new corners but it's actually quite different from what we're used to running.
"Any time you can get track time with this new car it's valuable and hopefully we can turn it into a decent race weekend."