Dixon Has Pole In Japan, Briscoe Has Control

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 18 2009
The helmet which Graham Rahal is using this weekend in Japan. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

The helmet which Graham Rahal is using this weekend in Japan. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Motegi, Japan – Ryan Briscoe is not the kind of driver who hears footsteps when he’s in a close battle for a race victory – or a championship. “I’d rather have people behind me,” said the Penske Racing driver, who leads the IndyCar championship over Dario Franchitti by 25 points and by 32 points over Scott Dixon.

At Twin Ring Motegi, site of the first of two races remaining, Briscoe will take the start in fourth place behind pole winner Dixon and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Franchitti, who qualified third.

But Briscoe shrugs off the suggestion by Franchitti that he’s going to have to pay attention to the two drivers who are chasing him in the points during the race. He intends to go for the victory.

“I was just a little too loose on the first lap of qualifying,” he said, “so I left a little bit on the table. It will be a tough race and hopefully it doesn’t come down to a fuel mileage run like it often does (at Motegi). But if it does, we’re ready for that.”

As overcast conditions dropped temperatures considerably, Dixon benefitted from being last in line in qualifying. He turned a best lap of 1:48.3400 in his Dallara-Honda to eclipse Mario Moraes, the 20-year-old Brazilian bidding for his first career pole at KV Racing. Moraes was just under three tenths of a second behind Dixon, the only driver to exceed a 202 mph average.

On a day when Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan failed post-qualifying inspection and teammate Hideki Mutoh spun and hit the wall, last year’s race winner Danica Patrick qualified her AGR Dallara-Honda sixth, sharing the third row with Graham Rahal of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.

In a development not helpful to Briscoe’s championship bid, Penske teammate Helio Castroneves hit the wall at the exit of Turn 4 in qualifying and will start at the rear of the field. With a strong performance, Castroneves might take points from the two Ganassi contenders.

Briscoe knows about hitting the wall. That’s what happened to his young career twice, once literally. After quickly rising to the status of a Formula One test driver at Toyota in 2004, Briscoe floundered and moved to America for the 2005 season at the age of 23.

He then had a fiery crash at the Chicagoland Speedway at the end of his rookie IndyCar season driving for Ganassi. The impact with the Turn 3 wall broke his car in half and nearly derailed his career due to his injuries and doubts among team owners.

Four years later, Briscoe leads the championship. More significantly, he’s coming off a razor-thin 0.0077-second victory over Dixon three weeks ago at the Chicago area track. That dropped Dixon to a distant third in the championship.

Briscoe said that by time he scored his victory in Chicago, he was already over the huge shunt in 2005, when he was lucky to escape from his violent crash with a concussion, broken ribs and clavicle, plus a punctured lung. “I think I got through (the bad memories of Chicago) in the race in 2008,” said Briscoe, who started on the pole for Penske and finished third in that one. “We were racing up front all night and three wide in the corners.”

Briscoe’s comeback began when Roger Penske hired him to drive one of his Porsche Spyders in the American Le Mans Series in 2007. Co-driving with Sascha Maassen, the Australian scored his first major career victory at the Miller Motorsports Park after a fuel mileage gambit by the team owner early in the season.

“Roger’s not somebody who usually goes for fuel mileage. But that’s what we did that day and it worked out great,” said Briscoe. “We beat Audi for the over-all victory.”

Known for a brilliant pace in Formula Fords that quickly escalated him into his test driving contract with Toyota in F1, the Sydney native realized that strategy and technique could be just as important as blinding speed with his first sports car victory. “”That was the first time I’d ever won a race like that where being the fastest wasn’t the most important thing,” he said.

Not surprisingly, in 2008 Penske promoted Briscoe to his IndyCar team, where Briscoe is now less impetuous about overtaking but gives up nothing on over-all pace in races. His eight poles and six victories since joining Penske attest to that.

“The win in Chicago was a really big boost,” said Briscoe. “That turned out to be a ten-point swing.” By losing ten points against Briscoe instead of gaining them, Dixon has been reduced to longshot status, which the New Zealander acknowledged headed into the Motegi race.

“When you look ahead to different circuits, some favor different drivers and team packages,” said Dixon. “Unfortunately, one of them is my teammate who we’re closest to in the championship and the other one is Briscoe. Team Penske at the moment have been very competitive on mile and a half configurations. We definitely have got a lot of work to try to pick up the pace that we had last year on these circuits.”

Dixon led 101 laps last year at Motegi, but gave up the lead to Castroneves and eventual winner Patrick when he pitted for fuel in the closing stages. This year, Dixon counts among his four victories one on the 1.5-mile track in Kansas.

Franchitti’s best finish of second at Motegi came as a CART driver in 2000. This year, he has yet to win on an intermediate oval, taking three road circuit victories and one win at the short oval in Iowa.

“We’re going to have to make something happen these next two races,” said Franchitti.

On the intermediate ovals, Castroneves has won at Texas for Team Penske and Briscoe took the victories at Kentucky and Chicagoland. “I think the Penske team runs well on the mile and a half tracks,” said Briscoe, who realizes he’ll need to sustain a quick pace to keep his championship lead.

“Fifth place would be a good result, but we could lose our points (cushion) if we finished fifth,” said the driver who has learned to thread the fine line between speed and disaster.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 18 2009
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