By: Spencer Neff
December 26, 2019 | 12:20 PM
Welcome to the final IndyCar Flashback of 2019. As we close out the decade, the past few weeks have been dedicated to the most memorable moments of the 2010s.
This week, we take a look at the 2012 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. Not only would this race be the stage for a memorable championship battle but it also was a historic event for the IndyCar Series.
Carpenter edges Franchitti for win, Hunter-Reay claims championship
Headed into the MAVTV 500, the two championship contenders were at an interesting point in their respective careers.
For Team Penske’s Will Power, this marked the third time in as many seasons he entered the season finale with a shot at the title. For the prior two years, his chances were derailed in the finale.
After a journeyman-like career over the previous decade, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay had found long-term success with the team. On the Thursday of the race, Hunter-Reay signed a two-year extension with the team.
Prior to the final race, Power held a 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay. Two weeks earlier, Hunter-Reay notched his fourth win of the season. After engine changes before the race, both he (13th) and Hunter-Reay (22nd) would incur 10-spot grid penalties.
Aside from the championship, the race was a major moment for the IZOD IndyCar Series. For the first time since the 1995 Michigan 500, a unified series would contest a 500-mile race away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Earlier in the season, IndyCar’s plans for a street course race in Qingdao, China had fallen through.
Instead of scheduling a replacement event, 100 miles were added to the distance of the finale in their first event at the 2-mile track since 2005. For the Auto Club Speedway, it also marked their first 500-mile event since 2002.
In the booth, it would also mark the final race for longtime broadcaster Bob Jenkins. After a long career across several platforms, the NBC Sports Network lap-by-lap announcer was stepping away.
At the start, pole sitter Marco Andretti led the field to the green. By the end of Lap 1, KV Racing’s Tony Kanaan would be in front. For the next two laps, Andretti would retake the lead. By Lap 4, JR Hildebrand made his way to the front. For the next 31 laps, the Panther Racing sophomore would hold the top spot.
During the first round of green flag pit stops, Ryan Briscoe, Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden took turns at the lead.
By Lap 41, Hildebrand was back out front. On Lap 56, the two championship contenders found themselves locked in an on-track battle. Unfortunately, that battle did not end well for Power.
After getting loose in Turn 1, the points leader crashed into the outside retaining wall. After starting under green for the first 55 laps, the first caution of the day was brought out. Despite a valiant effort by he and his crew, Power would return for just 12 more laps.
Following the Lap 65 restart, Owner/Driver Ed Carpenter usurped the lead from Hildebrand. Looking to win the season finale for a second consecutive year, Carpenter stayed out from for the proceeding 10 laps.
On Lap 74, Dragon Racing driver Katherine Legge and Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson collided in Turn 3. During the yellow, Wilson dropped out of the race with gearbox issues.
After a Lap 85 restart, a short green-flag stint would settle things down briefly prior to a Lap 108 caution for the stalled KV Racing machine of Rubens Barrichello. After leading for most of the run, Carpenter lost the lead less than 10 circuits into the restart on Lap 115.
In contrast with the cautions that had interrupted the racing during the previous 60 laps, the field ran under green-flag conditions for a race-high 67 laps.
While Carpenter continued to run up front, he was challenged by the likes of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. On Lap 153, Kanaan took the lead for the next 32 laps, the longest stint at the front by any driver in the 250-lap race.
On Lap 182, Briscoe again found trouble. This time, the spot was Turn 4. With the sun down and the track picking up grip, another green-flag run was ahead. As the race wound down, a 41-lap stint under green left just 22 laps in the season.
During the final round of green flag pit stops, Alex Tagliani brushed the wall in Turn 4. Fortunately for Hunter-Reay, Tagliani’s incident gave him another position on-track and vaulted him into the championship lead.
With the field gearing up for an intense finish, Hunter-Reay’s path was by mo means clear. After Tagliani dropped from contention, Carpenter was left to battle it out with Dario Franchitti.
While Franchitti was not in contention for his fourth consecutive title, a chance to sweep the 500-mile events was at stake. On Lap 237, Franchitti made his way to the front. Four laps later, a drama-packed race saw even more of it.
On Lap 241, Kanaan spun into the Turn 4 wall and brought out the caution. With a lengthy cleanup ahead, Race Director Beaux Barfield opted to red-flag the race.
After the stoppage, the green flag was displayed with seven laps to go. Fighting with a handful of drivers for position on the track, Hunter-Reay climbed to fourth. On the last lap, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato crashed in Turn 1.
With the race ending under the seventh yellow flag, Carpenter was ruled the winner.
As he did at Kentucky a year earlier, Carpenter edged out Franchitti for the win. Following a 112-race winless streak to begin his career, Carpenter had two wins within a year and his first as an Owner/Driver.
Narrowly missing the wrecked car of Sato, Hunter-Reay sped past to finish sixth. Coupled with power’s 24th-place finish, Hunter-Reay earned his first career title.
Before 2012, Ryan Hunter-Reay had yet to finish better than 7th in the points standings. With four wins, the veteran driver had a breakout season and earned his first title. In 2014, Hunter-Reay added an Indianapolis 500 win to his mantle.
Later that season, Power finished ninth at the finale to claim his first title at the same track where he had lost one two years earlier.
For 2013 and 2014, Auto Club Speedway hosted the season finale. In 2015, the race was moved to June 27.
Although the Saturday afternoon event was a tough crowd draw, those in attendance were treated to a record 80 lead changes. Since then, the Fontana, California track has been left off the schedule.
As for Jenkins, he remains involved in auto racing, most notably as the PA Announcer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Note: Thank you as always to everyone who participated in our poll on Twitter to select this week’s IndyCar Flashback. Look for more IndyCar Flashbacks and Fan Votes throughout the offseason and in 2020.
Header Image By Socal Speed Scene