INDYCAR: One Week To Go
Marshall Pruett, SPEED.com
“Whoever wins the championship should wear some old clothes to the banquet,” said Dario Franchitti, who sits just 12 points behind Will Power in the fight for the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.
“Whether it’s me or Will, someone’s getting thrown in the pool, guaranteed!”
Spend a few minutes talking with the reigning IndyCar champ and you’d never know he was in the midst of a close fight to retain his crown. Spend a few minutes with the young lion that’s on the verge of winning his first title, and the tension is tangible – it resonates in every word.
Dario Franchitti has the sound of a man who’s done this dance enough times to keep from worrying about how it plays out. Will Power, on the other hand, sounds more like someone who has a quadruple root canal scheduled for next Saturday and is growing more anxious as the appointment draws closer.
For the Scot, the prospect of earning his third championship in four years is one he relishes, but until the action gets under way next weekend, Franchitti says he’ll just live his life as he normally does.
“I haven’t really had time to think about it with everything going on, honestly. I drove Jimmy Clark’s car at the Speedway this week and that’s was amazing, but I’ve been busy every day since I got back from Japan. When I took the checkered flag in Japan, I was already thinking about Homestead – while I was driving down pit lane, actually. And then I met with my engineer Chris [Simmons] after the race about Homestead, but not since then. I’ll start thinking about it again this weekend with the test coming up [at Homestead] on Monday. I’d expect to start really focusing on it Sunday, I’d guess.”
While Franchitti has raced at Homestead for more than a decade the same can’t be said for Power, and he’ll need to gather all of the experience possible before the season finale. He adapted quickly to the Motegi oval – a track he’d never been on – and he made it clear that with more mileage at Homestead, the Aussie will breathe a little bit easier when the race gets under way.
“I think once I get to Homestead things will start to fall in place. I haven’t done much around that track before, but I’ll try to relax as much as possible. It’s been a bit of a short week with getting back from Motegi and then we’re back in the car to test on Monday at Homestead. I’m still getting over the jet lag from Japan, but I’ll head down to the [Team Penske] shop on Sunday then go to Florida from there. I’ll try to squeeze in a couple of days of physical fitness training too. I just want to get to Homestead and get going, though.”
Franchitti needs to earn 13 points at Homestead in order to take the championship from Power, and while that gap might look easy to overcome, IndyCar’s points system is nothing like the one found in NASCAR where a driver can earn 100 points or more just by cracking the top-20. An IndyCar win pays 10 points more than second. Second pays only five points more than third…for the Target Chip Ganassi driver to overcome his Team Penske rival in the standings, he’ll need to have a significant gap to the No. 12 Verizon Wireless car.
The IZOD IndyCar Series released an incredibly detailed spreadsheet this week, listing every imaginable scenario that would allow Franchitti or Power to win the championship. While both teams have surely committed the spreadsheet to memory, their drivers have steered clear of the document.
“That’s a big distraction, so no; I’ll keep my game plan and can’t worry about those scenarios,” said Franchitti. “If you start ‘points racing’ you’ll screw the whole thing up. I think we’ll just continue as usual.”
“I haven’t even looked at it. Haven’t looked and won’t look, either,” said Power. “That stuff can mess with your head, if you let it. All I know if that I have to finish ahead of the guy! Not really, I mean, I don’t actually have to; I know there are different things that could play out, but I’m going into the race with the mindset that I have to get the checkered flag before he does, know what I mean?”
Power established himself as the man to beat on the road and street courses this season, taking five wins from nine races and finishing on the podium 88 percent of the time. His prowess as a road racer earned Power the inaugural Mario Andretti Road Course Championship trophy, but capturing his first oval victory has proven to be rather elusive.
Clinching the 2010 IndyCar title with a convincing win at Homestead would silence anyone who doubts his oval racing skills, but according to Power, proving that he’s more than a road racer isn’t a source of motivation.
“It would be great to finish that way, but I don’t care, really. I just want to win the championship. It would be nice to do it with an exclamation point, I guess, but that’s not what’s important. It would be great to have to fight for the win and for it to be dramatic, but I’m not wishing for a crazy race. The easier, the better…”
Power has held an impressive command of the championship points lead throughout the year, but he and Franchitti have circled each other all season. The constant back and forth has been intense, but Franchitti says it hasn’t prevented him from enjoying the journey with Power.
“It’s a funny thing. There’s occasions through the years where I’ve thought, ‘This is a really cool battle with Will,’ and I guess it was the same last year and in 2007, but those moments don’t happen all the time. You get so caught up in doing all the little things you need to do to be successful that it makes it hard to kind of sit back and be a spectator of your surroundings when you’re in a close points race. There isn’t really the time to enjoy it fully; you hope to have a good time, but it’s more about pushing at every round to achieve the final result you’re after. That’s the big prize, so you have to keep a bit of pressure on yourself.”
Franchitti’s relaxed vantage point comes from a decade of being embroiled in some form of IndyCar championship contest. Power, though, isn’t willing to pop his head up from his bunker until he steps out of the cockpit after the race next Saturday.
“Not until I win. Not until the season is over. When the season is over and all is said and done, I can relax and chill a little. I’m not quite at that point now, though…”
Help from their respective teammates will be vital for Power and Franchitti at the final round. With Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe helping to take points away from Franchitti at the last two races, Power has maintained his championship lead, but Franchitti hasn’t been as fortunate.
Franchitti’s teammate, 2008 series champion Scott Dixon, has been curiously absent from the front of the field at Chicago, Kentucky and Motegi. For Franchitti to take the title from Power, having Dixon running in his draft would be a major boost to his chances.
“It has been very unusual for Scott over the last few rounds. I know he’s frustrated, but it’s nothing that he’s doing or his guys are doing. These cars are so fickle sometimes. Scott has been driving as well as he ever has, and I hope that come Homestead, he’ll be able to help me out. You could see in Japan, on that last restart, where Briscoe just moved over and let Will through. There’s definitely some good teamwork going on there and I hope Dixie and I can work in tandem next weekend. It’s important.”
With his two teammates always nearby, Power says the chemistry and camaraderie they’ve built this year is now paying off as he fights to earn Team Penske’s first IndyCar championship since 2006.
“Over time, we’ve built trust and in the situation I’m in right now with the championship, I’m relying on my teammates to help me out, which they have been. If next year the roles are reversed, they’ll be relying on me to help them, which I’ll happily do. That kind of trust doesn’t come overnight, but what we have now with me and Helio and Ryan is really, really good. There’s such a good feeling in the team this year, and all three of us know we have everything we need at our disposal. It makes the racing part of it so easy. I’ve been on teams where you didn’t have that and it was miserable. The way Roger [Penske] and Tim [Cindric] have it set up, everything just works perfectly and I’m fighting for a championship because of it. It’s everything you could ask for.”
The Ganassi team took everyone by surprise at Homestead last year, as Franchitti set sail on a strategy that required the two-time Indy 500 winner to reduce his pace and save fuel while his teammate and Briscoe -- the other two drivers vying for the championship -- were at maximum attack the entire time.
It would be hard to surprise Team Penske two years in a row with the same fuel sipping strategy, but Franchitti says that no matter what formula they come up with for next week’s race, the pleasure of catching Team Penske with their guard down won’t factor into their decision.
“I think people focus on that last round and maybe don’t look at the 16 rounds before it. We spent a whole season getting ready to win the championship, but it was the work we did over the entire championship that got us the title, not one win at one track. When we did the race planning, it was pretty clear that if we could do it on three stops instead of four, we’d be in a strong position in the end. It wasn’t about showboating or trying to impress people with how we won; it was about doing what was necessary to earn the title for Target and for Ganassi Racing. It was as simple as that. How people felt about [the way they won the championship] wasn’t a concern. I can’t say what we’re planning for this year, but I can tell you our approach is the same. Whatever we feel will win the race and the championship is what we’ll do. There’s nothing else that matters.”
Entering Homestead with a strong shot at winning the IndyCar championship is unfamiliar territory for Power, and when it comes to strategy and race administration, he says he’ll do whatever he’s told his engineer and race strategist.
“I’m not concerned about strategy or how we do it…I’m ready to race. I’m ready to wheel the car, man. My guys are the best and I know we’ll have something for the Target boys.”
With Franchitti in a cool and relaxed state of mind and Power doing his best to manage his nerves, waiting another week to settle the championship and dealing with the emotional highs and lows is just part of the adventure for the two title contenders.
Crossing the finish line and being able to decompress for the first time since the season opener last March is something both drivers said they are looking forward to, and being able to celebrate at the IndyCar banquet in Miami on Sunday night will come as a welcome change of pace after 17 rounds of intense open-wheel racing.
But as Franchitti reminded Power, the poolside cocktail hour that precedes the banquet is something for the Penske driver to keep in mind. And what kind of advice does the reigning IndyCar champion have for Power if the Aussie finds himself in the lead of the final lap?
“He might want to slow down and let me by unless he wants to go for a swim come Sunday night…”