Trailing point leader Wade Cunningham by 33 ducats and leading third-place Travis Gregg by eight, second placed Menards Infiniti Pro Series driver Jeff Simmons has a tough job ahead of him in this weekend's series finale on the 2-mile California Speedway.
Simmons was the runner-up driver in the Pro Series second season of competition, 2003, and drove a protracted schedule last year, instead running two IndyCar Series races including the Indianapolis 500. Working with Kenn Hardley Racing for the 2005 campaign, Simmons is again in the catbird seat, examining his chances before Sunday's California 100.
As the winner in four of the last six Menards Infiniti Pro Series races, the New York native has momentum on his side, as he's built from a slow start in March at Homestead-Miami Speedway to a crescendo with wins in the last two races, at Chicagoland (1.5-mile oval) and on the Watkins Glen International road course.
Obviously, Simmons will go for the hat trick and a third straight victory, "but I've got to keep an eye on second place. Wade is pretty far out there and he'd have to have a problem" for Simmons to take over the top spot.
"I don't think I'll have any friends out there on the Fontana track and, since I don't have a teammate," it might be difficult to find a dancing partner on the 2-mile banked oval. "It all depends on qualifying," Simmons said. He intends to talk with some of his competitors and see who might agree to help him once the starting order is finalized.
"LA is a tough track," he remarked. "In 2003 we were all strung out and last year we were a pack for much of the race with maybe a bit of separation. We have to get the car to work well; it's the only 2-mile track we run."
On the four 1.5-mile tracks where the MIPS have competed this year, Simmons' grid position averages ninth place. "We haven't had the best qualifying setup; it hasn't been as good as our race setup," he confirmed. "It's been disappointing and surprising not to qualify so well on the big tracks but during the races, it's a matter of the car coming to you. I'm not really sure what we need to do for qualifying, on those one- or two-lap runs."
Simmons' #24 Team ISI has brought their Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone entry to the checkered flags first four times this year through strategy, he said. "We seem to end up with a better race car yet we struggle with our top speed." Interestingly, the only races Jeff has led this year are the four events he's won.
Those victories have come on the Pro Series' two 1-mile ovals (Milwaukee and Pikes Peak) in addition to the 1.5-mile oval and road course. "I want to be known for my versatility and show that I can produce with limited testing. I like to race everywhere.
"Open wheel has always been my goal; I love the cars and variety of tracks. But the way other series have been going, I have to look that way. Ideally in the future I'd like to do Indy cars and other series too. I'd like to do the 24-hour race at Daytona, Le Mans, and the Daytona 500 as well. Those are ultimate goals for me."
Because Simmons had his Rookie Orientation Program on the seminal Indianapolis Motor Speedway with A.J. Foyt Jr.'s outfit, his name is being mentioned as a successor to the departing A.J. Foyt IV. He admits there's been some interest but he hasn't talked with Super Tex yet about the possibility. "I appreciate any chance he's given me. He let me drive ROP and that enabled me to get a ride for the 500."
While he doesn't have any real opportunities right now for next year's IndyCar Series, Simmons intends to finish the 2005 finale and then look to 2006. "I'll talk with everybody in California and then come to Indy and talk. Nothing's concrete yet but I know there are opportunities out there."
For now, the Menards Infiniti Pro Series title is an immediate goal. Simmons isn't surprised to be in the thick of the championship chase but, "To be honest I'm a bit disappointed. I knew we'd be competitive but without all the problems we had early in the year, we might have been ahead. We left points here, there, everywhere. We knew how to turn around the situations and be in contention. I learned a lot this year."