Indycar Series 2011: Major Storylines Entering the Last Race in Las Vegas

Eric SmithCorrespondent IIIOctober 14, 2011

Indycar Series 2011: Major Storylines Entering the Last Race in Las Vegas

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    The Izod IndyCar Series 2011 season is coming to an end this weekend in Las Vegas.  This has been one of the most exciting seasons since the split in 1996.

    There's been new drivers and teams in victory lane, the dramatic end to the Indianapolis 500, the increase of rivalries, and the new designs announced for the 2012 season.

    For the 12th time in the last 16 seasons, the Championship battle will come to the last race of the season.  That's just one of the many story lines that I will talk about in this slide show.

Who's Going to Win the Title?

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    Dario Franchitti is going for the hat trick for the Championship. 

    He's won the last two championships in 2009 and 2010, and with a remarkable amount of luck last week in Kentucky he holds an 18-point lead heading to Vegas. 

    Franchitti held over a 60-point lead just a few races ago, but Will Power had a dominate streak of four top fives in a row including two wins and a second-place finish, all while Franchitti only had two top fives in that same span. 

    Power's dominance gave him a good points lead heading in to Kentucky, only to have the bad luck bug bite him and that gave the lead back to Franchitti.

    Will Power has never won a championship and Penske hasn't won a series championship since 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr.

    Franchitti chased down Power last year as the pressure got to Power, and Franchitti took the championship from him in the last race last year in Miami.  Power will try and do that to Franchitti this weekend.

    Power has never been strong on ovals.  He's only got one win and that came this season in the second race at the Texas Duels. 

    In the seven oval races this season, Power only has four top fives and three finishes outside of the top 10, all while Franchitti has two wins and five top 10s. 

    He finished outside the top 10 twice—in Indy when he ran out of gas at the end, and in New Hampshire while leading every lap of the race before getting wrecked on a restart.

    The battle on Sunday will surely be a good one.

Who Will Be the Sunoco Rookie of the Year?

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    J.R. Hildebrand enters the last race this weekend in Las Vegas as the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Points leader.  He leads fellow rookie James Hinchcliffe by only six points.

    The winner of this year's trophy will be the one who doesn't make the, dare I say, "rookie mistake" in Vegas.

    Hildebrand has been inconsistent on ovals this year.  He was one corner away from winning the Indianapolis 500 in May, but a rookie mistake cost him as he hit the outside wall in turn four and coasted to a second place finish.

    Hildebrand ran strong last week in Kentucky and was surely headed to a top five, but he made another rookie mistake in the pits that cost him a lap. 

    In his seven oval starts this season he has only two top fives, with the other five starts finishing outside the top 15.

    Hinchcliffe, on the other hand, has the momentum.  He didn't race in the season-opening race due to sponsorship and finds himself in the chase for the Rookie of the Year, which is remarkable.

    Hinch has four straight top 10s on ovals including two straight top fives. 

    He will have something that Hildebrand won't have on Sunday—a teammate to lean on for help.

    This battle will be a good one to keep an eye on this Sunday.

Can Dan Wheldon Win the Go Daddy Challenge?

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    It was announced a few weeks ago Dan Wheldon will be the only driver competing for the $5 million dollar bounty set by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.

    Wheldon, who won this year's Indy 500, raced the last race in Kentucky where he finished 14th—his only two starts of the season.

    He will drive Alex Tagliani's No. 77 Honda like he did in Kentucky, and Tags will drive the No. 98 Honda that Wheldon drove in Indianapolis.

    The only catch to Wheldon racing is that he has to start last.

    If Wheldon wins Sunday he will split the money with a lucky fan who won the Go Daddy challenge.  He will be the most popular winner if he can win on Sunday.

End of Danica

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    Like the picture above, Danica will be leaving the Izod IndyCar Series in her rear view after Vegas.  She announced at the end of the summer she's going to NASCAR full time in 2012.

    Patrick will try and end her career with a win.

    She's only had one win in her storied IndyCar career, but wants to go out on top.

    Patrick will be the only driver with experience on the Vegas oval.  She's ran the last two Nationwide Series events there and finished a career high for her and any female to ever compete in NASCAR in March with a fourth place finish.

The End of the Current Car

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    Take a good look at the cars this weekend, because this will be the last time you will ever see these cars on the track.

    It was announced this year the series will have a new body style and engine package starting in 2012.

    The cars will have a different look and sound, and should be a bit quicker than the current car.

    Dan Wheldon has been the test driver for the new concept, and has taken the new car to Mid-Ohio, Iowa, and the road course and oval in Indianapolis.

The Battle for 10th

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    It's always the first goal a team writes down entering a new season: finishing in the top 10 in points.

    Entering Vegas, only 18 points separates Danica Patrick in 10th to Alex Tagliani (15th) in the standings.

    Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato, J.R. Hildebrand and Alex Tagliani all have a realistic shot at 10th.

    Those are little battles to watch out for on Sunday.

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