Vegas Race Puts IndyCar Friendship On Hold

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 13 2011

Will Power heads out onto the track in Las Vegas on Thursday. He's battling Dario Franchitti for this year's championship. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

If they weren’t so singularly focused on beating the snot out of each other on-track over the last two seasons, Dario Franchitti and Will Power might be BFFs.

As it is, Franchitti and Power will head into Sunday’s IZOD INDYCAR World Championships Presented by Honda at Las Vegas Motor Speedway separated by 18 points, an uncharted 1.5-mile oval and genuine mutual respect.

“It’s a tough one because we’re in this fight,” said Franchitti, the three-time/reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion from Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “Regardless of if we get on, I think this year has definitely tested it on several occasions. Because we’re in the middle of this fight, I don’t think we can really think like that. We’re out there to beat each other. I’m certainly out there to beat Will and to beat the whole Penske organization as much as I admire and respect and, in a lot of cases, like the guys on the team. I’m still…my job is to go out there and win and to do that for the Target organization, and that’s very much what we’re focused on.”

That mindset carried Franchitti to the title one year ago, when he edged Power by five points in the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I’m sure, if we weren’t competing against each other, that we would be friends – good friends,” said Power, de facto leader of Team Penske’s three-car stable. “You just can’t be friends with someone that
you so fiercely compete with. It’s impossible. It is for me, anyway. I respect him on the track and we’re friendly off the track in a way, and that’s just how it’s always going to be. It’s just the way it is when you’re competing against someone.

“I had an instance with a teammate in 2007, (Simon) Pagenaud (at Team Australia), and we just

Dario Franchitti needs to hold off good friend Will Power this weekend. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

fiercely – we hated each other. We didn’t even talk in the truck, but we’re best of friends now that we don’t compete against each other. That’s just the way this sport is.”

Franchitti’s first two IndyCar championships came at the expense of Scott Dixon – as TCGR teammates in 2009 and as corporate rivals in 2007, when Franchitti drove for Andretti Green Racing. The difference between Franchitti and Dixon _ series champion in 2003 and 2008 – was 11 points in 2009. The difference between the two was 13 points in 2007.

“I think to put it in a historical context maybe,” Franchitti said, “a lot of the guys that I’ve competed with fiercely over the years – from (Alex) Zanardi, (Jimmy) Vasser, (Juan Pablo) Montoya, all these type of guys – when one of them stops racing or you stop competing, then I think you become friends. And it’s happened in a lot of cases because I think when you go through these things and you fight as hard as this, it does create some sort of bond. But obviously not right now. Right now we’re out there, and we’re fighting as hard as we can.”

Both contenders said this finale has a feel similar to last year, when Franchitti won three of 17 starts and Power posted five victories, all on road-courses.

“You know, I think in the middle of the season there was certainly more…I think there was a little more tension there with some of the stuff that went on. But at this point it feels very, very similar to me,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Target Dallara/Honda. “I see Will and the Penske boys as very, very difficult opponents and that was the same last year. It’s no different now.”

Two of Franchitti’s four victories this season have been recorded on ovals, including the opening half of the Firestone Twin 275s on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway quadoval in June. Power’s six victories include the nightcap of that doubleheader in Fort Worth, which stands as his lone oval-track victory since his series debut in 2008 with KV Racing Technology.

“I mean, I think the biggest difference for me this year is just I’m a lot further along on ovals,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. “I feel as though every time I go into a weekend I have a chance of winning them. Obviously, we’re coming from behind this time, but at the end of the day we just… I feel as though we’ve done everything as a team to prepare for this race. I think that we’re in very good shape.

“Obviously, no one knows what the outcome is, but we know that we’ve put everything into it this year, and hopefully we can come away with a win.”

Franchitti’s domestic open-wheel history dates to 1997 in the Champ Car World Series with Hogan Racing. Ten years later, he scored the first of his two Indianapolis 500 victories and first IndyCar Series championship with Andretti Green, now Andretti Autosport, before exiting for what proved to be an aborted NASCAR career. Since returning to IndyCar with team-owner Chip Ganassi’s juggernaut in 2009, Franchitti has embellished his reputation as the thinking man’s racer.

“This is obviously not the first time we’ve been involved in this situation, myself nor my team,” said Franchitti, 38, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland. “But for me the whole season – in some ways it’s fortunate, but in other ways it’s unfortunate. For me, the season is all-consuming. Whether it’s the first race, the fifth race, the last race, it really makes no difference. I do think about the last race, the upcoming race. I do think about those a great deal during the year.”

Power, who made two forgettable Champ Car starts with Team Australia in 2005, was a part-timer in IndyCar as recently at 2009. In his second fulltime season with team-owner Roger Penske, Power has easily outpaced teammates Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 champion, and Ryan Briscoe.

“Actually, I’ve never been so relaxed,” said Power, 30, a native of Toowoomba, Australia. “I really…I don’t know why. I guess it’s because we’ve put in all the hard work the last couple of weeks with the car. We’ve done everything we can think of. We’ve done everything. We’ve done everything to the cars now also. To me, I haven’t thought about it much. I’ve just gone about my fitness regimen, and I feel _I’ve never felt so relaxed going into a race.

“It’s funny. I sometimes think, ‘Should I be more tense?’ I feel very relaxed and confident, actually.”

A record 34-car field is entered at LVMS, the most for a non-Indianapolis 500 in IndyCar Series history. The previous mark of 31 cars also was for a race on the 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 Channel 94.

“I’m not just racing Will and Will’s not just racing me here,” said Franchitti, who was nosed-out by first-time winner Ed Carpenter on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway oval on Oct. 2. “There’s 34 cars this weekend on the grid at Vegas, and any one of them can create a problem or go out there and just flat out beat us. At this point, I’m racing the whole field, as I always have. That’s the way we’ll be looking at things this weekend.

“You’ve got to be on your guard the whole time. You’ve got to do _ for me, you’ve got to do the same job as I would any other race and you can’t let your concentration drop for a second. Myself, the guys in the pit stops, the guys doing the strategy, you’ve got to operate at least the same high standard as you would normally do. And if you can find a little extra, it’s all good.”

Power agreed and added his task doesn’t require a prolonged strategy session. “Yeah, the situation we’re in our job is simple,” Power said. “We need to win the race. Over a whole season, it’s usually the team and the driver that’s worked the hardest that wins.

“I can say that we’ve done more this year, definitely, than we did last year at this point. Last year the three ovals before the last race, we actually had an edge. We were faster. We had chances to win. Where this year we felt that we weren’t strong enough on the ovals. So for the last two, after the test in Kentucky, I just said, ‘Hey, the car is just not good enough. We’ve got to change our philosophy here.’ We went away and had a good think about it. So I would say that we’ve – the boys have done everything. We’ve put everything that we can into this. I feel as though that’s the difference from this year to last year.”

Given the large field and drivers with varying amounts of seat-time this season, both contenders ideally want to race up-front and avoid doing the math. “That’s what the guys on the (timing) stand are for. I’ll leave that to them,” Franchitti joked. “I’ll just drive the car and do very much what I’m told. I think the easiest way to do it is to head out there and try to win the race. If we can do that, it would definitely take care of everything else. I am definitely glad at this point I don’t have to find those points that I did last year. Definitely, I think it puts us in a stronger position.”

Power reiterated the need for him to wind up in Victory Lane. “Like Dario said, the guys on the stands will be watching the whole time,” Power said. “Obviously, if Dario gets taken out somewhere in the pack or something like that happens, they will be letting me know exactly where I need to finish. But the safest place in these races is out front. In these pack races, if you’re at the front, you’re in the best possible spot.

“I think the key is you just cannot give up till the very, very last lap. I mean, that’s the way this sport is. That’s one thing. At end of the day, if you’ve done everything you can preparation-wise, there’s nothing more you can do. And that’s what we have done.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 13 2011
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