TORONTO -- The IZOD IndyCar Series arrives in Toronto for what is arguably the most important weekend of the season in terms of the championship.
The Honda Indy Toronto "Two in T.O." features full 85-lap races Saturday and Sunday. More importantly, that's two opportunities to score maximum points for an IndyCar championship that's still very much up for grabs just past the halfway point of the season.
The Toronto double brings to an end an extremely hectic stretch of the season, with 10 out of the past 11 weekends spent at the track, wrapping up with three races within the space of eight days. With so many points up for grabs -- a maximum of 106 are available -- Toronto offers an opportunity to either get a driver into the thick of the championship hunt or take him right out of contention.
"There are so many points, especially at Toronto with the double points," defending Toronto race and IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "It's a critical part of the racing season right now. We all know that. It's tough, but you can only do what you can do.
"I think the season is wide open," continued Hunter-Reay, who ranks second in the standings, 23 points behind championship leader Helio Castroneves. "The championship is going to come down to the last race again and it will probably come down to three or four drivers. You really don't know who is going to win any race. It's kind of a mystery every weekend. You really have to be on top of your game to make sure you score maximum points."
Hunter-Reay is still recovering from the disappointment he suffered last Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He was running second a third of the way into the 400-mile race when his car was damaged in a pit-lane accident caused by Takuma Sato. Sato failed to slow down fast enough at pit lane entrance and hit the right side of Hunter-Reay's car. The Japanese ace apologized for his error, but that didn't make Hunter-Reay's eventual 20th-place finish any easier to swallow.
Last year, Toronto was the third consecutive race win for Hunter-Reay and the anchor of his run to the championship. He's hoping for a similar boost this year.
"It's been a good season, but there is a very long way to go still," he said. "Everything can change pretty quickly. It's a lot of fun and typical IndyCar."
Toronto has the potential to really shake up the championship battle. While Castroneves and Hunter-Reay are solidly at the front of the pack, a solid weekend for Marco Andretti (55 points back) or Scott Dixon (minus-65) could vault them right back into contention with just six races remaining in the 2013 season.
With so many points on offer, even a driver buried deep in the standings like Dario Franchitti, who is in 11th place, 119 points back, could find himself right back in the thick of things. Franchitti scored his first career Indy car pole at Toronto in 1997 and is a three-time winner of the event.
The IndyCar Series tried out the two-races-in-two-days doubleheader format for the first time in Detroit in early June, and the results were generally positive. All of the competitors are hoping for a much cleaner second race this weekend, as opposed to Detroit, where Race 2 was marred by a series of silly accidents.
"I think there is a lack of patience from the drivers," Castroneves observed. "They run the first race, and they think, 'Man, you know what, I'm going to kick that guy's butt.' That's what happened in Detroit, a lot of people had a lot of issues in the second race.
"I believe for the promoters and financially, doubleheaders probably make a lot of sense," he added. "For the drivers and mechanics, it's a little bit rough. To do a race in IndyCar, it's tough. We don't have power steering. Street courses are very bumpy. It's very physically demanding."
Aside from the doubleheader format, the other interesting aspect to the Toronto weekend that could really shake things up is the use of a standing start for Race 1. Indy cars have traditionally used a rolling start for races, whether on ovals or road races. But Champ Car experimented with the procedure in its final season (2007) with few problems.
Race 2 will feature a traditional rolling start. If the Toronto weekend goes off without a hitch, the split between standing and rolling starts also will be utilized for the doubleheader weekend in Houston near the end of the season.
But current IndyCar Series drivers are certainly aware of the potential for calamity if one or more drivers stall on the start. About a quarter of the field, including Graham Rahal, Will Power, Alex Tagliani, Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson, have experience from that '07 season using a hand clutch for a standing start.
"It's a challenge in these cars with the turbo engines and all, but I think it will be OK," Rahal said. "I am a fan of the traditional rolling start, but I guess we're looking to spice it up a bit."
"I think it's great," Castroneves said. "My only concern is the tracks that we go to are street courses set up for the rolling starts. When you have a clutch in your hand, it's very difficult. It's very sensitive, and you don't want to have any issues. That's the only thing that concerns me. But I know the series is always looking for areas to improve, and I'm trusting everyone that the right call was made and we are going to be OK for these double races and standing starts."
One notable change to the lineup this weekend is the return of Mike Conway to Dale Coyne Racing. Conway, who withdrew from full-time IndyCar Series competition at the end of 2012 because he no longer wanted to race the oval portion of the schedule, stepped in cold and dominated Race 1 at Detroit six weeks ago.
Conway will drive Coyne's second car alongside Justin Wilson at Toronto and in the final doubleheader of the season at Houston.
Portions of the Toronto street course were flooded earlier in the week after the Greater Toronto Area got hit by 3.5 inches of rain in the space of two hours on Monday afternoon. But the track has been cleared and sunny skies are forecast for Indy car racing's second-longest running street race.