Game On: Title Fight Breaks Out At Chicagoland

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 28 2010

Dan Wheldon, Will Power and Marco Andretti go three-wide at well over 200 mph at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Having just lopped 36 points off Will Power’s once-cushy advantage Saturday night, Dario Franchitti was asked to reassess his IZOD IndyCar Series championship chances with three races remaining.

“Trust me,” Franchitti said, “I’ll be pedaling as hard as I can.”

Franchitti and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team used a clever bit of strategy to win the PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., where the two-time and reigning series champion dramatically closed the gap on Power.

Franchitti scrambled into the lead during the night’s final pit stop on Lap 173 by taking only fuel while relying on a double stint from his Firestone Firehawk tires covering 62 laps. The Scotsman gained eight spots during the stop and then held off Dan Wheldon by 0.0423-seconds for his third win of the season.

Meanwhile, Power’s normally efficient Team Penske crew experienced a fueling equipment issue on the same pit stop, prompting the Australian to duck onto pit lane with five laps remaining for a splash of ethanol. He was running fourth at the time but finished a season-low 16th.

Power began the race with a 59-point cushion over Franchitti, but saw that shrink to 23 with three races on 1.5-mile ovals similar to Chicagoland remaining on the schedule. Next up is a visit to Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night.

“Well, I think we saw tonight, we see how quickly these things can change, especially on

Dario Franchitti is back in contention for the 2010 championship.

these one-and-a-half-mile tracks,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Breathe Right Dallara/Honda. “We’re just going to keep going. It would have been easy to give up halfway through the race there when we were running in sort of 10th or whatever, and that’s how you get it done, and I’m lucky to be part of Team Target.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of getting beaten from them sometimes when they managed to pull things out of seemingly nowhere, so it was nice to be on the end of actually winning the thing tonight. (But) it’s far from over on both sides. Will did a good job tonight, and I guess there was a mistake on the amount of fuel put in. Yeah, it’s going to be interesting these last three.”

Franchitti, who qualified second to pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske, admitted his car wasn’t very fast from the start of the 200-lapper.

“I think we probably had a fifth-place car,” said Franchitti, who nevertheless posted his 26th career major open-wheel victory. “And then with that last stop, it turns out it was Chris Simmons that made the call not to take the tires and give us track position. We saw how some of the other cars earlier in the race had been able to…cars that were out of sequence had been running pretty close to the back all day had been able to stay up front. So they did that call, and they called off tires very late into the pit stop. I think I was three pits away when they called off the tires.

“And my fueler did a great job of getting the fuel in there, and I got out pretty quick. And then from the restart I had a message saying that Dan is going to work with you if you give him some space where he needed space on a certain part of the track, and so Dan was great and just pushed me along a little bit, just…and that was helping him, too.

“We worked very well, managed to stay inch-perfect for those last 25 laps, used the overtake (assist) for the last seven, I think, and that was it. So, great turnaround from about halfway through the race.”

A frustrated Power beat a hasty retreat to his hauler after exiting the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda.

“That was a really intense race and man, I had a lot of fun out there,” said Power, the series’ road-racing ace this season. “Unfortunately, we had a problem with our fuel late in the race and we had to come back in and lost position. That was just a mistake that we couldn’t afford. This obviously makes things tougher for the championship, but we’re still in front and we proved how competitive we can be on the ovals. We’ll move on and we will work harder next week at Kentucky.”

Franchitti’s 26th Indy-car victory tied him with Rodger Ward for 11th on the all-time list including U.S. Auto Club, Championship Auto Racing Teams and Indy Racing League sanctions. Johnny Rutherford, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 1980 CART champion, is next with 27 career victories.

Wheldon, who made his first IndyCar start at Chicagoland in September 2002, finished second to tie his season-best finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 2005 series champion, Wheldon scored wins at Chicagoland in 2005 and 2006 – before Honda introduced its “overtake assist” or “push-to-pass” option.

“Yeah, I think it adds an element to the series, and it’s something that we can certainly utilize as drivers to our advantage and what-have-you,” said Wheldon, driver of the No. 4 National Guard Dallara/Honda fielded by Panther Racing. “You know, I tried to do what I did to Helio (Castroneves) in 2006 at Homestead to Dario, and I probably just dropped back a little bit too much to really get the run that I should have. I probably mis-timed it by 40 or 50 feet. So that was my bad.

“But I certainly utilized the two push-to-passes that I had left on the backstretch to start the white flag lap, and then as soon as that ran out, I hit it again. I just left it a bit too late. Like I said, I was about 40 or 50 feet wrong on my decision.”

Marco Andretti led a threesome of Andretti Autosport drivers in the top five with a season-best-tying third-place result. Andretti had finished third in back-to-back starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in May and June. Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan followed in fourth and fifth, respectively, while Penske’s Castroneves finished sixth. Justin Wilson advanced 16 positions to finish seventh for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

“It’s good to taste (success) again,” said Andretti, driver of the No. 26 Team Venom Energy Dallara/Honda. “It’s been tough on the road courses lately so I’m happy to finish on the podium.  We lost a couple spots in pit stops, so we have to really analyze what happened. It was costly.”

Franchitti, who previously had won this season at IMS and Mid-Ohio Sports Course Course, clinched the 2007 series title with a victory at Chicagoland. Saturday night’s win allowed him to take the lead in the A.J. Foyt Oval Championship, while clearly setting his sights on Kentucky Speedway, Twin Ring Motegi in Japan and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a fight,” said Franchitti, whose margin of victory was the sixth-closest in series history at Chicagoland. “I think it’s going to be a fight to the wire. The Penske team is very, very strong. Will is doing a good job. He’s learning quickly (about ovals). You know, we’re well-aware of what the Target Team can do and how great they are. Trust me, I’ll be pedaling as hard as I can.”

Results Saturday of the PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300 IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 1.52-mile Chicagoland Speedway, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis/engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1.  (2) Dario Franchitti, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

2.  (7) Dan Wheldon, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

3.  (5) Marco Andretti, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

4.  (9) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

5.  (13) Tony Kanaan, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

6. (4) Helio Castroneves, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

7.  (23) Justin Wilson, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

8.  (15) Scott Dixon, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

9.  (24) Vitor Meira, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

10.  (6) Graham Rahal, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

11.  (1) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

12.  (20) Bertrand Baguette, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

13.  (8) Hideki Mutoh, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

14.  (12) Danica Patrick, Dallara/Honda, 200, Running

15.  (25) Sarah Fisher, Dallara/Honda, 199, Running

16.  (3) Will Power, Dallara/Honda, 199, Running

17.  (21) Mario Moraes, Dallara/Honda, 199, Running

18.  (28) Davey Hamilton, Dallara/Honda, 199, Running

19.  (26) Milka Duno, Dallara/Honda, 197, Running

20.  (11) Ed Carpenter, Dallara/Honda, 179, Handling

21.  (14) Alex Lloyd, Dallara/Honda, 162, Running

22.  (29) Jay Howard, Dallara/Honda, 161, Mechanical

23.  (27) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara/Honda, 150, Mechanical

24.  (22) Ana Beatriz, Dallara/Honda, 88, Mechanical

25.  (19) Alex Tagliani, Dallara/Honda, 85, Contact

26.  (10) Takuma Sato, Dallara/Honda, 80, Contact

27.  (16) E.J. Viso, Dallara/Honda, 80, Contact

28.  (17) Tomas Scheckter, Dallara/Honda, 4, Contact

29.  (18) Raphael Matos, Dallara/Honda, 4, Contact

Race Statistics

Winner’s average speed:  169.161 mph

Time of Race: 01:47:49.5783

Margin of victory: 0.0423-seconds

Cautions: 3 for 28

Lead changes: 25

Lap Leaders: Briscoe 1-28, Andretti 29, Briscoe 30-32, Andretti 33, Briscoe 34-50, Andretti 51, Briscoe 52-54, Wheldon 55, Carpenter 56-57, Tagliani 58, Lloyd 59-61, Meira 62-63, Briscoe 64-80, Fisher 81-90, Briscoe 91-135, Power 136, Carpenter 137, Wheldon 138, Meira 139-142, Wheldon 143-149, Hunter-Reay 150-151, Wheldon 152-155, Power 156, Wheldon 157, Power 158, Franchitti 173 – 200

Point Standings: Power 528, Franchitti 505, Dixon 443, Briscoe 406, Castroneves 398, Hunter-Reay 392, Kanaan 360, Andretti 319, Wilson 316, Wheldon 309.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 28 2010
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