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POWER WINS IRL FINALE, DIXON SURPRISE 2013 CHAMPION
Author: Mark W. Theisen
October 19th 2013 - WEST BEND, WI: A highly competitive IZOD Indy Racing League season came to an end tonight at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California with Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon coming out of "no where” to capture the title over Helio Castroneves, who was the only other driver with a chance to overtake Dixon for the title in this pentulamate race. 

Will Power in a Penske Racing team car to Castroneves dominated the event to record his first oval race win in what he described as his most "satisfying” victory in his racing career. Coming off a win in the second half of the double-header racing weekend in Houston and now with that win in his resume I fully expect Power to be in the thick of the 2014 IRL title race.

How did Dixon, who came out of the Indianapolis 500 mired in eighth place in the point standings, come into the final with the lead in the standings? Well he did it with four victories in the final 10 races coupled with a series of mechanical woes for Castroneves that took, what looked like his first ever series title, away from him. 

The 10 races that followed Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Milwaukee win in June saw five different drivers post wins while, all along, Castroneves was kept out of victory lane as Dixon continued his impressive roll.

When the checkered flag flew tonight at Fontana a near record 10 drivers scored wins in the IRL this year, one sort of the record 11 different winners in a single season. In addition James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Takuma Sato and Charlie Kimball scored their first series win in what has to be one of the best competitive seasons on record.

Dixon, who won IRL titles in 2003 and 2008, continued on the "five year plan” by taking the title this year to give the Ganassi Organization its 10th series championship since the inception of the team.

And it was Dixon, the much more mature and calculating driver than he was 10 years ago delivering when he had to. 

With so much at state for the final event a series of moves, much like a chess game, unfolded following the second race of the Houston double-header on October 6th. Target Racing lost their lead driver, three time Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti, on the final lap of the Houston event when he when airborne following contact with Sato and E.J. Viso. The Honda Powered Dallara went into the catch fence and split into pieces sending parts into the spectator stands injuring several spectators, none seriously, while sending Franchitti to the hospital with a concussion and spinal fracture that did not require surgery and a fracture of the right ankle that did required surgery that was done successfully in Indianapolis this week.

With Franchitti out Alex Tagliani was hired to keep the car in the race while Penske hired A.J. Allendinger to drive a third car in the race to try and separate as many points as possible between Castroneves and Dixon come race day. In addition both teams changed engines prior to the race and thus incurred a 10 starting spot penalty for not adhering to the prescribed mileage interval for engine changes during the season.

Power won the pole for the Fontana event thus taking a bonus point from his teammate while Castroneves was second and Allmendinger third for a Penske sweep of the starting spots. Dixon qualified fifth. With penalties Castroneves started 11th and Dixon 15th.

Dixon played it safe in the early going of the 500 mile race while Castroneves charged right to the front, his usually conservative driving style thrown out the window for this championship chase.

The race was wildly entertaining with several drivers taking turns at the point. In addition to the three Penske drivers; Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Tony Kaanan and Sebastien Bourdais, and Tagliani all taking leads at points in the race. The race was not without it’s share of cautions as over half the filed was eliminated by accidents including Bourdais who looked as though he had the only real car to challenge Power.

In the end only five cars finished on the lead lap with Ed Carpenter, the defending race winner, taking second followed by Kaanan, Hinchcliffe and Dixon, who also had to nurse an overheating engine the final 100 miles of the race, only having the problem become more manageable when Castroneves suffered handling woes to finish sixth, one lap off the pace. "I guess the five year thing played out,” said a beaming Dixon in victory lane.

"This season had so many swings, so many ups and downs that it is just incredible that we finished the way we did. It is a credit to our team for not giving up at any point in the season.”

Justin Wilson suffered 3 fractures to his pelvis in the scariest of all the incidents tonight after being hit in the center of his car following a multi car accident. He was kept overnight for observation before returning home Sunday.

The championship banquet will be held Sunday night where Dixon and the rest will receive their spoils. 

SERIES NOTES

A lot of information about the IRL 2014 season has came out already and I will try to bring you up speed: 

IZOD as decided to exit as series sponsor follow this year and the search for a new sponsor for 2014 and beyond has begun. It has been difficult task to accomplish with the departure of the Hulman & Company chief of marketing earlier this month. That has left all the negotiations in the hands of Mark Miles, the president of Hulman & Company who in addition to his duties overseeing the IRL and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway he must now hire a new marketing chief and bring him up to speed.

Miles made considerable news on October 1st when the Grand Prix of Indianapolis was announced to the public. Rumored for several weeks the race on the road course of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will kick off the "Month of May” in Indianapolis for 2014 on the newly re-configured 2.436 mile road course. The race will be on Saturday May 10th with qualifying and practice on May 8th and 9th. Miles has wanted to re-kindle the month long concept in Indianapolis dating back for decades. It is hoped that this event will do just that. Tickets will be priced reasonable enough for a family to attend with no excessive hardship. Mothers Day is May 11th and the speedway will then convert to the oval with practice and qualifying leading up the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 25th.

In order to compress the season and finish before the National Football League gets into high gear the IRL has announced its 2014 schedule: 18 races from March 30th to August 30th will encompass the season, which kicks off in St. Petersburg, Florida. That will be followed by Long Beach, April 13th; Birmingham, Alabama April 26th; the Indy Grand Prix May10th; the Indy 500 May 25; the Detroit double-header on May 31st and June 1st; Texas Motor Speedway of June 7th; the Houston double-header on June 28th and 29th; Pocono on July 6th; Iowa on July 12th; the Toronto double-header on July 19th and 20th; Mid-Ohio on August 3rd; The Milwaukee Indy-Feast on August 17th; Sonoma on August 24th; and finishing at Fontana on August 30th. Missing are the races in Brazil and Baltimore. The compactness of the schedule will be tough on teams with so many races in such a short span but it also hoped that fan interest will peak early and remain all season long. It was hoped that the series would return to Road America in 2014 but for now a rumored open test for the series cars is hoped for in 2014 to test the track for a "future” date. 

When Chip Ganassi informed Juan Pablo Montoya, one of his NASCAR drivers that his services in NASCAR for 2014 who would not be renewed many expected the driver, who won the Indy 500 for Ganassi to remain in NASCAR with another team but he is headed back to the IRL in 2014 driving for Penske giving that team three full time entries for the year versus the two-full time run this season with a third added for specific races. Montoya should bring excitement back to the series.

Ganassi racing made several announcements prior to the season finale. First the team would switch from Honda power to that of Chevrolet for 2014 thus ending an association that saw Honda power 9 of the 10 championship wining cars that Ganassi entered in the series. Toyota was the engine in Dixon’s 2003 championship car. The switch aligns all of Ganassi Racing Teams under Chevrolet. Ganassi also announced the hiring of this year’s Indy 500 winner, Kaanan to drive for him in 2014. Ganassi Racing returns to four cars for 2014 after fielding just three this year. Franchitti plans on being rehabilitated to race next season. Charlie Kimball is the driver of the final Ganassi entry.

Honda loses Ganassi but gains Andretti Autosports as the team announced at Fontana that the team will use Honda’s next year. Marco Andretti, Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe are signed for next year. Hinchcliffe lost Go-Daddy as a sponsor but United Fiber & Data, a large technology company started by members of the rock band LIVE will be replacing them. In addition United Fiber will also be associate sponsor on the other Andretti Autosport cars. Andretti is also looking to finalize a deal for a fourth entry for 2014. Will be it be current driver E.J. Viso or perhaps rookie sensation Carlos Munoz. Look for that announcement soon.

Sebastien Bourdais replaces Kaanan at KV Racing leaving Dragon Racing with a vacancy.

The switch of the Milwaukee date is two-fold. One: One Andretti Autosports, which promotes the event, wanted to get off the Father’s Day weekend and not have to deal with a Friday & Saturday event that led into Fathers Day. Two: Andretti wanted to take advantage of the one million people that attend the Wisconsin State Fair each year, an event that concludes the week before the race. That way the Andretti group will be able to have interactive displays and promotions all throughout the Fair to encourage people to come out and check the event. The "Fest” theme and midway will continue this year.

The "Silly” season in the IRL is far from complete. Check back here for updates as other teams finalize their plans with season long drivers and sponsors and those just for the Indianapolis 500. As the plans are announced you will read them here.