- Associated Press - Friday, September 14, 2012

FONTANA, CALIF. (AP) - Over the past decade, there have been times when both Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay were either out of work or deep in debt. Both considered abandoning racing altogether.

Well, look at them now.

Power and Hunter-Reay go into Saturday night’s season finale at Auto Club Speedway battling for the IndyCar championship. The winner will be a first-time champion _ in any series _ and officially end Dario Franchitti’s three-year title run.

Hunter-Reay, who has a series-best four wins this season but trails Power by 17 points, said he has refused to think about what winning a championship would mean.

But it would mean a lot.

Hunter-Reay was stuck in the politics of American open-wheel racing. There weren’t enough paying rides, and open seats often go to less talented drivers who can bring sponsorship money to the program. Out of work all of 2006 and most of 2007, there was simply nobody left to call looking for work.

He has found something at Andretti Autosport, where his three-year run is the longest for Hunter-Reay with any one team. A team spokesman told The Associated Press on Friday night that Hunter-Reay has signed a multi-year extension to stay with Andretti.

Although he opened the season talking about racing for the championship, few listed the journeyman driver as a true contender.

“I really wouldn’t even think about it because I am not going to get on that mental high before I am even there, or ever think about how it would feel,” he said. “It’s something I want worse than anything. I want it incredibly bad.”

Nobody can relate to that desire like Power, who goes into the finale with the championship on the line for the third consecutive year.

Power had a lead over Franchitti headed into the 2010 finale, but brushed the wall, finished 25th and lost the title by five points. A year ago, he was involved in an accident on pit road in the penultimate race to lose the points lead. He was then in the 15-car accident in the finale at Las Vegas that killed Dan Wheldon.

Power broke his back in the accident, the same injury he suffered in a 2009 wreck at Sonoma. No one would blame him if he headed into Saturday night’s race worried about all the scenarios that could lead to him losing for the third consecutive year.

He’s not, though. Power arrived in Fontana with a Zen-like approach to this final race.

“It’s going to be what it’s going to be, and we just focus on what we can control and however it plays out is what happens,” he said. “We’re going to be the champion, or we’re not.”

This is a driver who once begged and borrowed his way across Europe, and wound up out of money and unwilling to take on any more IOUs. He was close more than once to returning to the family canvas business at home in Australia.

Now in his third full season with Penske Racing, Power has established himself as the most dominant driver in IndyCar. He has won 14 races the last three years, had 24 podium finishes and 21 poles. He brought a three-race pole-winning streak into Fontana.

“I definitely respect him a lot, and he’s a unique character in many ways,” Hunter-Reay said. “He certainly has put on some of the most impressive performances and I definitely feel like I’m fighting one of the best we’ve had in IndyCar in a long, long time.”

Power has come a long way emotionally over the last year. Both he and Wheldon’s cars sailed into the fence, and Power’s came to a stop on the track right behind Wheldon. He doesn’t talk about what he saw that day, but has admitted to his own personal struggles in the months after the accident. He finally found some comfort in a talk with Wheldon’s sister, Holly, at a race this summer.

He said he is trying to not be so intense anymore, and to enjoy both racing and life in general. He wants a championship, badly, but said he is not allowing it to consume him.

Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, was laser focused Friday on the prize in front of him.

He opened the season talking about racing for the championship, and has cited the continuity and a strong support system at Andretti for pushing him into the position he’d been trying to get to for so long. This is the first year he’s won multiple races in a season, and his numbers across the board are career highs.

It made him a hot commodity, and in the final year of his contract, he appeared to have an opportunity to leave for Penske Racing. But Hunter-Reay agreed Friday to an extension with Andretti, and said earlier this week he recognizes this weekend is the payoff for all of his years of hard work.

“I’ve always wanted to be in this position and here we are, fighting for the championship,” he said. “But it only gets tougher from here. The workload doubles from here. So I am enjoying it, somewhat. I just want to go race. I want to race. I want to go do what I do, and that’s race the car. It’s just been such a long road.”