Ryan Hunter-Reay kisses the Astor Cup after winning the IZOD IndyCar Series… (Robert Laberge / Getty Images )
Say what you will about the troubled state of IndyCar racing — and there's no shortage of problems to discuss — but the series still can put on a compelling show.
That was evident on a hot Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, where the Izod IndyCar Series returned for the first time in seven years.
The MAVTV 500 was the series' season finale, with drivers Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay locked in a close championship battle.
So there was a race within the race, with 26 drivers trying not only to win the event but Power and Hunter-Reay trying to finish high enough to capture the title.
Hunter-Reay, 17 points behind Power when the green flag fell, prevailed after Power suffered a stunning setback by crashing early.
But even with Power's accident, it wasn't known until the last lap of the 250-lap race whether Hunter-Reay would gain enough points to overtake Power for the title.
The result was a tense, thrilling race that saw Hunter-Reay — who needed to finish fifth to become champion — hang on to finish fourth and capture his first title by only three points over Power.
"That was the most pressure I've ever had in my life," Hunter-Reay said.
With most eyes on those two drivers, almost overlooked was the dramatic last-lap pass that Ed Carpenter made on 2011 champion Dario Franchitti to win the race itself.
Carpenter owns his team, which he formed a year ago with primary sponsorship from golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's vodka company.
Carpenter also is the stepson of Tony George, who helped trigger a 12-year split among IndyCar factions when George formed the Indy Racing League in the mid-1990s.
That civil war, which produced two series until they reunified in 2008, is one reason why Indy-style racing has sagged in popularity in the last decade, especially compared with NASCAR stock car racing.
NASCAR, too, has struggled amid the tough economy and Auto Club Speedway has been unable to sell out its 92,000 grandstand seats for its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races in recent years.
The Fontana track had held two Cup races a year until NASCAR moved one of the races to another speedway last year.
With only one annual NASCAR race left on its calendar, Auto Club Speedway stepped up its effort to host an IndyCar event.
Although a Cup race at Fontana still draws between 80,000 and 90,000 spectators, the IndyCar race Saturday night had a crowd of 25,000 to 30,000, about the number who attended the last IndyCar race there seven years ago.
To be sure, a huge crowd wasn't expected this year because of IndyCar's lengthy absence from the Fontana track and the sport's overall struggle to gain a wider following.
That hasn't stopped another IndyCar race in Southern California, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April, from attracting sizable crowds. But that race on the city's seaside streets has more of a festival atmosphere and did not have a seven-year gap in events.
The question now is whether Auto Club Speedway will be back on IndyCar's 2013 schedule, which hasn't yet been announced.
Before the race, IndyCar Chief Executive Randy Bernard said he was "proud of the effort" Auto Club Speedway made to market the race and that "we stand pretty optimistic" about IndyCar returning.
But Bernard said he first wanted to see the race: "Quite honestly, we need to see what happens at Fontana and how it turns out."