(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
Penske Racing will win its first IndyCar championship in six years if Will Power can hold off Ryan Hunter-Reay in Saturday night's season finale.
It doesn't hurt Penske's chances that Power's competition goes into the biggest race of his life with the toughest decision of his career hanging over his head.
The timing is probably not a coincidence.
Hunter-Reay is in the final year of his contract with Andretti Autosport, the team that finally gave him the continuity and support he had been lacking. He has said repeatedly this year that being with the same team for three seasons has contributed tremendously to what has turned into a career year.
The 31-year-old Dallas native has four victories, six podium finishes and has led 153 laps - all career bests. A streak of three consecutive wins this summer made him the first American driver since Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to lead the IndyCar standings, and he heads into the finale at Fontana trailing Power by 17 points.
But the title race itself isn't getting nearly the same attention as Hunter-Reay's contract status, suddenly the biggest story in IndyCar.
Why? Because Penske is allegedly courting him.
It's a brilliant move by the Penske braintrust, who have nothing to lose in the process.
Penske fields three cars in IndyCar, and has already picked up the options for 2013 on Power and Helio Castroneves. They've told Ryan Briscoe he can see what else is out there while team officials work on sponsorship for that third program, all while quietly inquiring about the availability of other drivers.
That includes Hunter-Reay, who apparently became a top candidate after his Sept. 2 win at Baltimore.
There's nothing Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric want more right now than to see Power hoist his first championship trophy on Saturday night after falling short the last two seasons. Cindric believes Power is poised to finally silence the critics who say the Australian cracks under pressure.
"I think he's in a much better place than he's been the last few years," Cindric said. "He's emotional, he wears everything on his sleeve. But if he couldn't handle the pressure, we'd see it in his performance and his performance has been there this season. You aren't seeing anything from Will on the track that indicates he can't handle the pressure."
It sure won't hurt this weekend that people are talking about Hunter-Reay and the decision he'll have to make not long after the finale.
For his part, Hunter-Reay has declined over the last week to discuss his contract, citing his desire to stay focused on the finale. That won't stop the questions.
Following his victory at Baltimore, a must-win race that vaulted him back into the championship, he was asked about his future with Michael Andretti. He talked about the opportunity Andretti has given him, and the backing from the organization.
More important, he talked about the importance of continuity and loyalty, which is something he believes he owes Andretti for giving him his ride and sticking with him through sponsorship woes and Hunter-Reay failing to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
All those feel-good qualities might get thrown out the window if it's Roger Penske holding on Line 1.
Penske is considered the gold standard in American open-wheel racing. His organization has won 23 national championships, 12 in IndyCar, and his most defining statistic is his 15 Indianapolis 500 victories.
He's the guy everybody dreams of driving for, and Hunter-Reay apparently has that chance of a lifetime in front of him. Some would say only a fool would turn down Penske.
Hunter-Reay isn't saying anything. Asked last week about contract talks with his driver, Andretti remained optimistic an extension will get done.
"We are hoping. We have been real close," he said. "Obviously it comes down to time between sponsors and all that, and we are getting real close to having it all locked down. I feel very confident that Ryan is going to be with us."
Maybe he will, maybe he won't. But Hunter-Reay has something very important to think about at a time he should only be thinking about Saturday night's race.
And that's exactly where Penske wants him.