FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — This season was long ago earmarked as the pivotal year for IndyCar to begin the long climb back into relevance.
The series succeeded in some ways, overcoming the death of Dan Wheldon in last year's finale and making the adjustments needed to produce an on-track product some believe is the best in racing. There were seven different winners, competition all the way down the grid, and IndyCar heads into the finale Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway ready to crown a first-time champion.
"Great comeback, outstanding comeback, especially the way we finished last year," said Helio Castroneves, who celebrated his season-opening win at St. Petersburg by touching the street sign named for Wheldon in his trademark fence climb.
"We never forgot what happened, but we took the right measurements to address the issues we had, and big props for the entire series and all the drivers for working so hard together to make the best racing we've ever had in IndyCar."
Improving the racing was one of CEO Randy Bernard's major goals for this season, which marked the debut of the first new IndyCar in nine years. The car was created with an emphasis on improved safety, upgraded technology and more competitive racing.
The series also welcomed multiple engine manufacturers for the first time since 2005, and Chevrolet marked its return to IndyCar with 10 victories in 14 races. Chevy has already beaten Honda and Lotus for the manufacturer title, and will celebrate a driver championship Saturday night with either Penske Racing's Will Power or Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"I think it's the best racing product out there in the world," team owner Michael Andretti said. "Our races are just so competitive, and also the quality of our drivers and our teams is as good as it's ever been in the history of IndyCar."
Even so, IndyCar still has major ailments and issues that threaten its long-term stability.
One of the biggest problems the series is facing is horrific television ratings. Despite the strong product, a brutal television package has made IndyCar the best kept secret in racing. Locked into a long deal that puts the bulk of the races on NBC Sports, drivers have been outspoken all year in blaming the network for doing a poor job of promoting the series.
"NBC does a pretty crappy job of promotion, and the broadcast is OK, but the booth needs a major shake-up," Scott Dixon said Thursday. "You understand why NASCAR has such a big following, they have such a big television presence and it's promoted very well. They have sideshows and while the racing may not be a better product, they do a good job of promoting it and putting it out there.
"So much these days for sponsors is based on ratings, and unfortunately we don't have them right now in IndyCar. I think this sport could have a following, whether you wait the six years for the contract to run out, or you do something about it — well, we're kind of getting to the point where we have to do something about it."
Off the track, the backroom politics and fighting between team owners and Bernard consistently hurts IndyCar's efforts to grow. Bernard tweeted two days after the Indianapolis 500 that an owner was actively trying to have him fired, and there's persistent talk throughout the paddock of an owner-led coup to have Bernard ousted at the end of the season.
Andretti was named in May as one of the owners allegedly involved in the plot, which he has repeatedly denied. Still, his review of Bernard's three-year tenure isn't exactly glowing.
"Randy's got a tough job. I wouldn't want it," Andretti said. "Is he doing great? I'm not sure he's doing great. Is he doing bad? I don't think he's doing bad. I think he's doing a good job with what he's been having to work with."
Bernard was faced with scheduling issues this season, as the Las Vegas finale was canceled after Wheldon's death and promoters of an August race in China pulled the plug on the event. Although he promised several times to release the 2013 schedule in early September — and he's been adamant he wants between 17 and 19 races — he has since retracted and said he'll have nothing to announce until after his meeting next week with the IndyCar board of directors.
And it appears his goal of adding more races might not be fulfilled, and he's toying with the idea of adding doubleheaders to some of the events. Bernard thinks doubleheaders will lead to more time on television, and the added exposure will help IndyCar turn a corner.
He also still has to make a decision on the use of aerokits next year — he promised them, fans want them and owners are unanimously opposed. Bernard also might have a battle coming up with engine manufacturer Lotus, which had a humiliating first season in IndyCar and apparently wants to leave the series despite a long-term contract.
And on the track, drivers want Bernard to clean up some issues ranging from the drivers' desire for additional horsepower and a complaint about a lack of consistency from first-year race director Beaux Barfield.
Although Barfield's addition rectified the lack of trust that had grown between the paddock and former race director Brian Barnhart, not all of his calls — or non-calls — have been applauded.
"I think in some ways he's a bit of a gunslinger, and for me, the consistency hasn't been great," said Dixon, who was on the receiving end of an incorrect call at Milwaukee that Barfield later apologized for.
"To give an assessment right now of him is kind of tough, and it's probably the worst job on earth. Nobody else wants it. But I do like his enthusiasm, I like that he's young. I just think he could play under the radar a lot more and not be so much of a showman. I don't think that's what that job is about."