With the 2011 IZOD Indycar Series season closing in on the last two races of the season, action on the track and in the rumor mills has heated up. The past couple of weeks have resembled an episode of Days of Our Lives with partner swapping, deal-making, and story-lines that even Talk Soup would have a hard time covering. But, let’s take a look at some of the major headlines rolling into the last two races of the season.
- Kentucky and Las Vegas will be the last two races for the current Dallara/Honda chassis/engine package. Dan Wheldon, the official 2012 Indycar development driver, has been busy ramping up on-track testing of the new car. The Dallara faces its biggest challenge yet today (Sept. 27) through Thursday as it heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval for the first time for high-speed testing.
- The 2012 car will run hot-laps before the Saturday truck race in Las Vegas. This will be the first formal introduction of the car to fans on the track.
- Dario Franchitti and Will Power are locked in a tough championship battle with Power only 8 points ahead of Franchitti heading into the final two races. Despite a win at Texas earlier this season, Power does not dominate ovals as he does road and street courses. Keep a close eye on strategy for both during the races.
- Season finale weekend in Las Vegas will be busy to say the least. There will be a kick-off party on Thursday evening followed by the cars parading down The Strip, there will be a charity blackjack tournament on Friday night, Indycar Nation Champion fan appreciation events, the Championship celebration will take place on Monday night, and Lupe Fiasco will perform as well. Oh, and don’t forget there’s an Indy Lights race and the season finale that will decide the 2012 champion as well on Sunday. WHEW!
- Indycar is the promoter for the finale in Las Vegas. If the event proves financially feasible and is deemed a success, Randy Bernard has stated it is possible Indycar will promote some future oval events.
- Kentucky and Las Vegas are Danica’s last races as an Indycar driver as she heads to the NASCAR Nationwide Series full-time in 2012. Keep an eye on her because the 1.5 mile ovals are her strongest events. With nothing to lose, she could be a contender for a win.
- With GoDaddy.com remaining as a sponsor, Andretti Autosport has a sponsored, open seat for the taking. Dan Wheldon has been rumored for the ride, but his long association with Honda and Andretti Autosport’s partnership with Chevrolet next year could be a deal-breaker. Look for the rumors to intensify in coming weeks as the Andretti’s determine whether they will have 3 or 4 cars in 2012.
- Dan Wheldon will be vying for $5 million dollars if he can win the Las Vegas race from the rear of the field. If he wins he will split the money with a lucky fan. Sign up for the challenge, sponsored by GoDaddy.com, here.
- Wheldon will be replacing Alex Tagliani in the Sam Schmidt Motorsport #77 for the final two races of the season. Keep in mind this is the car that sat on the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and the first Firestone 275 at Texas. Rumors state that Tagliani will be in the Bryan Herta Autosport ride in Las Vegas. Remember that SSM and BHA teamed up in Indy and Bryan Herta has stated the two teams could form a partnership in 2012 if neither team has funding for a second car next year. The Wheldon/Tagliani swap could be an indication of what is to come in 2012.
- Speaking of Sam Schmidt Motorsport, the organization has been the “pimp” team of 2011 for any driver bringing money to the table for a ride. Drivers have included Townsend Bell, Wade Cunningham, Martin Plowman, Hideki Mutoh, and now Dan Wheldon. SSM has also had partnerships with AFS Racing, Bryan Herta Autosport, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It will be interesting to see if any of these endeavors prove fruitful for a full-time 2012 ride.
- Wade Cunningham will be making his 2nd and 3rd starts for Sam Schmidt Motorsports/AFS Racing at Kentucky and Las Vegas. The rookie will be looking to improve upon his results at the Firestone Twin 275’s when he was tangled in an accident with Charlie Kimball in the first race. Cunningham will pilot the #17 despite running the #99 in the Texas events.
- Buddy Rice will be in the Panther Racing #44 sponsored by Fuzzy’s Vodka for Kentucky and Las Vegas. Panther has stated interest in fielding a 2nd full-time entry in 2012 if they have the additional funding. Rice’s performance in the final two races of the season could prove pivotal for next year. Also, look for Panther Racing to announce partnership with Chevrolet for next year very soon.
- Pippa Mann returns to action with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the final races of the season after suffering from fractured vertebrae as a result of a practice crash at New Hampshire. Performance in these races will be key to her quest for a full-time ride in 2012.
- Jay Howard will return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at Las Vegas for his 3rd start of the season, although it will be his first in the #15 as his first two starts were in the #88 in partnership with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
- Tomas Scheckter announced he will be piloting the #57 Angies List Special for Sarah Fisher Racing in Las Vegas. Earlier this season, SFR was very quick at Indy and Texas and has a past history of being very fast at 1.5 mile ovals. With Scheckter’s knack for the 1.5 mile ovals as well, look for the #57 to be very strong. Once again, a great showing at Vegas is important as Scheckter is seeking a full-time ride in 2012 and SFR is seeking funding for a 2nd entry in 2012.
- Serving as the replacement for injured Justin Wilson, Townsend Bell will be in the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing #22 for the final two races. It will be interesting to see how well Bell performs as his last non-Indianapolis 500 Indycar start was in 2008.
- 49 year-old Davey Hamilton will make his 3rd start in the HP #11 for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at Las Vegas. Hamilton has qualified well in his previous two starts this season, but race performance has been lacking.
- Following sponsorship issues, rookie Sebastian Saavedra was ousted from the #34 Conquest Racing ride at Motegi. Conquest tested rookie Dillon Battistini at Kentucky last week and he should make his first start there. However, Saavedra has been rumored to return to the ride for Vegas. It will be interesting to watch how the off-season unfolds for Conquest and their plans for next year.
It is important to note that the Las Vegas finale is still 3 weeks away. There is a possibility of more entries into the race being announced. With teams having no use for the current chassis after the race and if anyone can bring sponsorship to the table, the field at Vegas will most likely be the largest starting grid in Indycar history…more than the 33 at Indianapolis. One thing is for certain, the race at Kentucky and the Las Vegas finale are races you will not want to miss!