Franchitti Could Still Knock Out Power

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 14 2010

Dario Franchitti still poses a threat to Will Power as the IZOD IndyCar Series heads down the stretch. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

IndyCar points-leader Will Power exited Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last Sunday as winner of the inaugural Mario Andretti Road Course Championship, and with the knowledge that Dario Franchitti is lurking.

Always lurking.

Franchitti, the two-time and reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion, put his considerable road-racing skills on display en route to winning the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Franchitti held off Power over the final 15 laps following a restart on Lap 70 to win by 0.5234-seconds – third-closest road/street course finish in series history.

Franchitti’s first victory on the 2.258-mile, 13-turn circuit in Lexington, Ohio, pulled the Scotsman to within 41 points of Power, who began the weekend with a 50-point advantage. The Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway will close out a five-race run on the street/natural-terrain road-courses where Power has been the measuring stick in 2010. Four races on 1.5-mile ovals will lead into the Oct. 2 season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the championship apparently will be decided between Franchitti and Power.

“Yeah, it’s already become that,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Dallara/Honda. “It’s sort of looking like it might be the two of us, but things change pretty quick. I mean, at the moment I really need to finish ahead of Dario every week. We just can’t afford to let him get that points jump. I think it’s going to be real tight all the way to the end.”

Franchitti scored the 25th victory of his open-wheel career, first win at Mid-Ohio, and first since bagging his second Indianapolis 500 title on May 30.

“You can only do your best,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda. “We all want to win the championship. Team Target, we want to win the championship. The only way we know how to do that is to do our best. If we can get it all together and we can start winning races, it’s going to make our job a lot easier.

“We’ve got to put pressure on Will. The last sort of Watkins Glen, Toronto, Edmonton – we finished on the podium every time, but Will was always a place ahead. That wasn’t in our plan, wasn’t helping us win the championship. Then we look back at Iowa when we were leading the race and had that gearbox failure. You know, we’re still a fair bit behind, but it’s definitely doable. We’ll keep fighting.”

Franchitti, 37, said he drove every lap Sunday “like it was a qualifying lap,” whether he was behind or ahead of Power. “But the key was that first pit stop by the Target boys to get me out ahead, especially (from) a 35-foot pit box,” Franchitti said. “It’s the tightest we run. In practice, we couldn’t get the thing out of the box with Will parked in his or get it in properly. But when the race win was on the line, it didn’t seem quite as difficult and I managed to pass him. I think that was the key, because we were incredibly evenly matched on the track.”

That brief stop for tires and a 22-gallon load of ethanol – during the first full-course caution period of the race – came on Lap 25. Alex Tagliani, who pitted three laps earlier, assumed the point and led the next 30 laps. Franchitti and Power, running 1-2, both pitted on Lap 60 under green – with Franchitti again slipping out a tick of a second quicker.

Power remained on Franchitti’s rear wing for the closing laps, never more than 0.6157-seconds back. “I was trying really hard at the end to make him make a mistake, letting him see me in his mirrors, letting him know if he made one little slip-up, I’m going to get him,” Power said. “That was the only way I was going to get by.”

As it played out, Power settled for clinching the inaugural Mario Andretti Road Course Championship with one road circuit race remaining. The award was created this year to honor the best performer on road and street circuits. Power is scheduled to receive his championship prize from Andretti on Aug. 22.

“Getting the trophy from one of racing’s legends will be very special,” said Power, whose four victories have all have been scored on road-courses. “I really want to win at Infineon after what happened last year.  I was going into that weekend expecting to be at the front. To get that trophy will be a very good feeling, but it will be an even better feeling to get the trophy and have a good result.”

Recall that Power suffered a broken back in a terrifying crash during practice involving Nelson Philippe last summer in Sonoma, Calif. Power ran a limited six-race season for team-owner Roger Penske last season, when he was hired as a “super sub” while Helio Castroneves dealt with his federal income tax evasion trial. Power’s sheet time after Sonoma admittedly included a fair amount of self-doubt.

“I did wonder if I was going to be as fast as I was,” said Power, 29. “Once I got back into the car at the first test, I knew it was going to be OK.”

Rewarded with a fulltime ride for 2010, Power won the season’s opening two street races at Sao Paulo, Brazil, and St. Petersburg, Fla., and finished on the podium at Long Beach, Calif. – building a nearly insurmountable lead by time series officials established separate road-course and oval championships. Power’s subsequent wins at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International and the Streets of Toronto, combined with runnerup results at Edmonton City Centre Airport and Mid-Ohio, helped crown the Australian as the series’ “King of the Road.”

“The key was winning, actually,” Power said. “In any championship, winning makes a huge difference, but so does consistency. I’ve had a very strong team around me all year and two very good teammates (Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe) that have helped me a lot. I’ve had a good run.

“We’ve got our sights set on winning the overall championship. That’s what I’ve been aiming for all year. You can’t think too far ahead in the championship. That’s how I’ve approached every race this year.  You are aware in your head of the points, and you always want to win, but sometimes you have to drive accordingly to cover the big picture.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 14 2010
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