IndyCar Championship To Be Decided Vegas Style

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 10 2011

Dario Franchitti and Will Power will be gunning for the IndyCar title this weekend in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin| Senior Writer

A record 34 cars have been entered for Sunday’s IZOD INDYCAR World Championships Presented by Honda at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the ongoing on-track battle between Dario Franchitti and Will Power will be preceded by a well-orchestrated war of words.

Franchitti leads Power by 18 points after regaining the lead at Kentucky Speedway on Oct. 2, the sixth time the respective rivals from Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have exchanged the top spot.

The week’s media activities officially will begin on Wednesday afternoon, when Franchitti and Power will present their cases during the Race Preview Press Conference at The Capital Grille – Fashion Show Mall. On Saturday morning the contenders will participate in a live, worldwide video streaming and web chat hosted by INDYCAR and Ortsbo, the world’s leading real-time experiential language platform.

Franchitti, the three-time/reigning champion, and Power will be joined by two-time/reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon, lone competitor for the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge. If Wheldon – who will start from the back of the field in a Sam Schmidt Motorsports/Bryan Herta Autosport entry – wins the race, he and a fan will each pocket $2.5-million.

The 34-car field of Dallara-powered Hondas is the most entrants for a non-Indianapolis 500 in IndyCar Series history. The previous mark of 31 cars also was for a race on the 1.5-mile LVMS oval in 1997. The race will be televised by ABC at 3 p.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network on XM 94.

Franchitti is aiming to become IndyCar’s first four-time champion while Power is seeking to lock down his first series championship.

“We need to focus on winning the race,” said Power, who took the points lead into the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year only to fall five points short of the title. “We have to put 100 percent into winning the pole, leading the most laps. As much as (the 19th-place result in the Kentucky Indy 300) is disappointing, it’s not going to help us thinking about it. What’s going to help is us working even harder to turn up with something special at Vegas.”

The championship will be decided in the final race for the 12th time in the last 16 years, and sixth season in a row. Franchitti holds the lead heading into the finale for the second time in the last five title chases.

“It just shows how quickly things change. You never give up,” said Franchitti, who needs to lead 16 laps to break the series record for laps-led in a season (899) set by TCGR teammate Scott Dixon in 2008 en route to his second title. “Until it’s mathematically impossible, you haven’t lost it or you haven’t won it. It’s certainly nicer than the position we were in (prior to Kentucky), no doubt about it. It can change in a second. So we’ll just go (to Las Vegas) with an open mind and see what comes of it.”

Neither Franchitti nor Power has raced at LVMS. Franchitti has 15 wins on ovals, most recently in Race 1 of the Firestone Twin 275s at Texas Motor Speedway in June. Of Franchitti’s 15 oval wins, four have come on 1.5-mile layouts (Chicagoland Speedway in 2007 and 2010; Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2009, and TMS). Power scored his lone oval victory during Texas 2 in Fort Worth in June.

Power has logged a series record-tying six victories, and an average finish of 7.35, in his No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. Franchitti has four victories and an average finish of 4.8 in the No. 10 Target Dallara/Honda.

Some noteworthy non-full-season names on the roster for Vegas:

• Paul Tracy back in the No. 8 Dragon Racing car. The Canadian with 31 career Indy car victories will compete for the seventh time this season.

• Firestone Indy Lights graduates Jay Howard and Pippa Mann competing for Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Howard last drove at TMS, while Mann started her second IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway.

• Davey Hamilton and Townsend Bell in Dreyer & Reinbold Racing cars. Hamilton will be making his fourth start, and Bell will be making his third. Bell, filling in for the injured Justin Wilson (back), advanced 15 positions to finish 11th at Kentucky Speedway.

• Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 champion, who finished ninth at Kentucky in his second start of 2011.

• Tomas Scheckter driving a second entry for Sarah Fisher Racing, which earned its first IndyCar Series victory with Ed Carpenter at Kentucky Speedway.

• Alex Tagliani driving the No. 98 William Rast/Bowers & Wilkins car for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb Agajanian/Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The Canadian and 2011 Indy 500 pole-sitter had been driving the No. 77 car through the road-course event at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on Sept. 17.

• Colombian Sebastian Saavedra will reunite with Conquest Racing. Saavedra, who competed in the first 15 races of the season with a best finish of 11th on the Streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, will drive the No. 34 Bogota es Mundial car.

He hasn’t won on an oval in 2011, but Scott Dixon claimed IndyCar’s second annual A.J. Foyt Oval Trophy with a third-place finish in the Kentucky Indy 300.

Dixon racked up the most points via top-five finishes in all seven oval races _ the season-finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is not included _ and outdistanced Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti by 10 points. Franchitti, inaugural award winner in 2010, won at Texas Motor Speedway and The Milwaukee Mile but had non-top 10s at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“It’s a big honor to win the A.J. Foyt oval award,” said Dixon, who will be presented a $50,000 check at the INDYCAR Championship Celebration at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on Oct. 17. “The guy’s a legend and a character, as I’m sure everybody knows.”

Foyt, first four-time Indy 500 winner and owner of the IndyCar Series team bearing his name, is the all-time open-wheel leader in victories with 67 (all under U.S. Auto Club sanction). Foyt, whose Indy car career started on a dirt track in Springfield, Ill., in August 1957, earned his first win at DuQuoin, Ill., on Sept. 5, 1960.

Dixon, the series champion in 2003 and 2008, was eliminated from title contention at Kentucky Speedway.

The Sunoco Rookie of the Year award will be decided between Californian JR Hildebrand and Canada’s James Hinchcliffe at LVMS. Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 06 Sprott Newman/Haas Racing car, moved six points ahead of Hildebrand via a season-best-tying fourth place finish at Kentucky Speedway.

“Certainly it’s nice to go into the last race of the year a little bit up (in points), but at the end of the day there is still a lot that can happen,” said Hinchcliffe, who did not compete in the season-opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., in March. “JR was ahead of us on-track at one point during the day (at Kentucky Speedway) and so many things can happen to throw you off. It just proves how tough these races are; it’s really about being there at the end.”

Hildebrand crashed in Turn 4 of the final lap while leading the Indianapolis 500 in May, and finished second to Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand started fifth and was running as high as second at Kentucky in the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car before a Lap 140 pit lane incident put him one lap down. Hildebrand finished 20th.

Two-time IndyCar Series champion Panther Racing will reunite with General Motors to campaign the new Chevy IndyCar V-6 racing engine in 2012. All of Panther’s 15 IndyCar victories and both of its series championships were secured with GM powerplants.

“I just couldn’t be more excited that Chevrolet has decided to return to IndyCar racing, and obviously it’s a natural fit for Panther to have Chevrolet powering our cars once again,” said John Barnes, Panther’s managing partner/CEO. “We’ve got a long list of race wins and championships together and we’re looking forward to continuing our successful partnership starting in 2012. Chevy races to win, and so do we, so we’re ready to get to work and pick up right where we left off.”

Panther won its first race in 1999 with Scott Goodyear in the team’s GM-powered No. 4 entry, and captured the 2001 and 2002 IndyCar Series championships with Sam Hornish Jr. Panther was the lone team to remain with Chevrolet entering the 2005 season, a year in which it captured a team-record three pole positions and a victory at Texas Motor Speedway with Tomas Scheckter.

“As Chevrolet returns to IndyCar competition in 2012 with an all-new twin-turbocharged, direct-injected V-6 engine, we’re pleased to renew our longstanding relationship with Panther Racing,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. vice president for performance vehicles and motorsports. “Both organizations share the same commitment, focus, and dedication to winning.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 10 2011
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