Ups and downs led to title finale
That 17-point gap is the product of 14 races spread across six months and three countries, encompassing 1,713 laps of competition and 120 lead changes.
In a series in which the difference between first and second place in an individual race is 10 points and there's at least a 2-point gap between every finisher, the difference between Power and Hunter-Reay has been 1.2 points per race. In other words, over the balance of almost a full season, these guys are thisclose.
Most of the time, second-guessing about where points were won and lost happens after the season is done and dusted. But we're going to get that analysis out of the way now, before a single wheel turns in anger at Fontana.
Here's how the championship has played out so far
Round 1: St. Petersburg
In the first race for IndyCar's new Dallara DW12/turbo V-6 formula, Power continued in his usual role of fastest qualifier. WP scored 16 poles during 2010 and '11; Dario Franchitti is next with four. So before the first green flag of the season even waved, the bonus point from winning the pole gave Power a 1-0 advantage over the field. But when strategist Tim Cindric called Power into the pits during the first full-course caution, it mired the Australian in the pack and he never recovered, finishing seventh. Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, was steady throughout the weekend, qualifying and finishing third.
Standings: 1. Helio Castroneves, 50 points; 3. Hunter-Reay, 35 points; 7. Power, 27 points
Round 2: Barber Motorsports Park
Power was fairly despondent after qualifying ninth at a circuit that was renowned for being difficult to pass. But perfect strategy and effective use of the softer Firestone alternate tires put Power into the lead with just more than 20 laps to go and he cruised to a relatively easy victory. After qualifying 11th, Hunter-Reay had a good middle stint on the red alternate tires, but struggled for grip at the end of the race. He finished 12th.
Standings: 1. Castroneves, 86 points; 3. Power, 77 points; 6. Hunter-Reay, 53 points
Round 3: Long Beach
Power and Hunter-Reay qualified second and third, but both drivers dropped 10 places on the grid due to unauthorized engine changes. Hunter-Reay made a fantastic start and ran eighth in the first stint, rising to second place when the leaders (and Power, from 11th place) made their first pit stops on Lap 20. After the full field had completed pit stops on Lap 35, Power ran sixth and Hunter-Reay 10th. Power made his second stop on Lap 54 of 85; RHR followed suit four laps later. On Lap 71, Power assumed the lead while Hunter-Reay ran eighth. The American charged up to fourth place and attempted to pass Takuma Sato for third on the last lap, but Hunter-Reay tapped Sato into a spin. Although Hunter-Reay crossed the line third, after the race he was penalized 30 seconds by INDYCAR, dropping him to sixth place -- and costing him a potentially critical seven championship points.
Standings: 1. Power, 127 points; 7. Hunter-Reay, 81 points
Round 4: Brazil
Hunter-Reay did pretty much all he could by charging from eighth on the grid to a second-place finish. But Power had a perfect weekend, claiming the maximum of 53 points by claiming pole position and leading the most laps on the way to the victory. Hunter-Reay made a strong challenge for the lead on the final restart, but Power held him off to win by 0.9 second.
Standings: 1. Power, 180 points; 4. Hunter-Reay, 121 points
Round 5: Indianapolis 500
A forgettable event for both championship contenders. Hunter-Reay bested Power in qualifying, lining up third to Power's fifth, while also gaining 2 points on his rival. But both drivers scored an equal number of points in the race, which neither managed to finish. Power was taken out when he was swept into Mike Conway's crash, leaving him classified 28th; Hunter-Reay said he was lucky not to crash when a CV joint failed, putting him 27th.
Standings: 1. Power, 200 points; 5. Hunter-Reay, 143 points
Round 6: Detroit
Power was narrowly beaten to pole position by Scott Dixon, while Hunter-Reay was the last of the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying. Dixon dominated the race; Power managed a fourth place finish while Hunter-Reay spent the first stint trapped behind the slow EJ Viso and lost his chance to recover when the race ended early due to deteriorating track conditions. He finished seventh.
Standings: 1. Power, 232 points; 7. Hunter-Reay, 169 points
Round 7: Texas
Hunter-Reay hoped to capitalize on Power's perceived weakness on ovals, but Power outqualified his rival, fifth to 15th. Hunter-Reay lasted just 66 laps in the race before a faulty fuel injector sidelined him with a 21st-place finish. Power, meanwhile, was judged to have the fastest car on the track, but he was called in for a drive-through penalty after blocking Tony Kanaan on a Lap 184 restart. Power finished fifth, extending the gap between himself and Hunter-Reay to a season-high 75 points.
Standings: 1. Power, 256 points; 7. Hunter-Reay, 181 points
Round 8: Milwaukee
Hunter-Reay's comeback into championship contention started at the Milwaukee Mile. He qualified second and assumed the lead for the final 84 laps, scoring the 2 bonus points for most laps led. On the other hand, Power struggled throughout the Milwaukee weekend, qualifying 14th and finishing 12th. Hunter-Reay cut into Power's championship lead by 34 points at Milwaukee and moved from seventh to fourth in the standings.
Standings: 1. Power, 274 points; 4. Hunter-Reay, 233 points
Round 9: Iowa
Power and Hunter-Reay ran together in their qualifying heat race to line up sixth and seventh for the main event. Hunter-Reay caught a break when he emerged unscathed from Lap 30 contact with JR Hildebrand; Power wasn't so lucky. He was unaware that Viso was trying to pass him, sending both drivers into a crash on the 68th lap. Hunter-Reay ran fifth for the final restart with 45 laps to go and surgically carved his way to the front, passing Kanaan, Castroneves, Dixon and finally Marco Andretti to claim a well-deserved win, moving to within three points of championship leader Power in the process.
Standings: 1. Power, 286 points; 2. Hunter-Reay, 283 points
Round 10: Toronto
Power qualified second and took the lead from Dario Franchitti on the sixth lap. He built a 5-second lead that was nullified when the pits were kept closed under yellow when Graham Rahal crashed. Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, ran sixth in the early going but gained an advantage by making a green-flag pit stop on Lap 22, two laps before the yellow for Rahal's crash and four laps ahead of Power's stop under yellow. When racing resumed, RHR ran second while Power was stuck in 11th place. Team Penske tried an early second stop, two laps prior to when Andretti Autosport called leader Hunter-Reay in for his second stop. Still stuck in traffic, Power tangled with rookie Josef Newgarden on Lap 57. The stop for a new front wing dropped him to a 15th-place finish, while Hunter-Reay continued on to his third successive race win and a 34-point championship lead. During that three-race streak, Hunter-Reay outscored Power by 109 points.
Standings: 1. Hunter-Reay, 335 points; 2. Power, 301 points
Round 11: Edmonton
Hunter-Reay kept up the momentum by claiming pole position (and the bonus point), but he started 11th after another unauthorized engine change. Power qualified seventh but was also docked 10 grid places due to an engine change. In a race that featured no full-course cautions, Power drove a strong first stint and caught Hunter-Reay on the track. He then stretched his fuel an extra lap and jumped ahead of his rival on the first round of stops, emerging in seventh place. Power then began to pull away and he gained even more ground on the second round of stops. A third-place finish was not indicative of what might have been Power's finest drive of the season and the Australian actually dropped to third in the point standings; Hunter-Reay finished seventh.
Standings: 1. Hunter-Reay, 362 points; 3. Power, 336 points
Round 12: Mid-Ohio
Pretty much a disaster for Hunter-Reay, who felt his engine tightening up during the race before it finally expired with just a couple laps remaining, leaving him with a 24th-place finish. Power took the pole position and led the most laps, but he lost the race lead to Dixon during an exciting final round of pit stops. Power's second-place finish still lifted him into a 5 point lead over Hunter-Reay in the championship chase, but he was left ruing the 10 points he lost during that final round of pit stops.
Standings: 1. Power, 379 points; 2. Hunter-Reay, 374 points
Round 13: Sonoma
Once again, claiming pole position and leading the most laps earned Power three bonus points. Power then caught a bad break; the pits were left open for the first full-course caution in nearly three races, and Power duly stopped. But on his out lap, he was held up by a train of backmarkers who were driving slowly due to the caution. That allowed Power's teammate Ryan Briscoe to nip in and out of the pits and emerge with the lead. There may have been a plan for Briscoe to cede the lead to his Penske teammate, but Power's push-to-pass malfunctioned in the closing laps and the close proximity of Franchitti in third place prevented the exchange anyway. Hunter-Reay did well to qualify seventh on a track that has befuddled Andretti Autosport and looked set to finish third, but Alex Tagliani knocked him off the track on a late restart, leaving a furious Hunter-Reay 18th at the flag. Hunter-Reay lost 17 points right there, though it must also be said that Power took home 10 points less than he expected after dominating the first three-quarters of the race.
Standings: 1. Power, 422 points; 2. Hunter-Reay, 386 points
Round 14: Baltimore
Power again swept the three bonus points by nabbing pole position and leading the most laps. This time, the weather was his biggest foe. Power missed his first radio call to pit, then made the mistake of taking on rain tires when the track was already drying. An additional stop for tires bogged him down in 17th place, and while he drove well to move up to an eventual sixth-place finish, Michael Andretti's strategy calls for Hunter-Reay were absolutely perfect and RHR went on to score his series-leading fourth victory of the season, cutting Power's 36-point championship lead nearly in half in the process.
Standings: 1. Power, 453 points; 2. Hunter-Reay, 436 points
Excluding potential bonus points for pole position or most laps led, Power will clinch his first IndyCar Series championship if he finishes fourth or better at the season finale. If Hunter-Reay finishes second, Power clinches by finishing ninth or higher. If Hunter-Reay comes home third, Power wins the title by finishing 13th or better. If Power simply starts the race, Hunter-Reay must finish at least fifth to have a shot at the title.