Friday, July 22, 2005
Updated: July 23, 3:53 PM ET
Franchitti's luck beginning to turn?
By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com
WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- Dario Franchitti's title hopes were raised with a
victory last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, as if the Scotsman
needed additional reason to look forward to Sunday's ABC Supply Co./
A.J. Foyt 225 at the Milwaukee Mile.
Franchitti dominated last year's IndyCar Series event at Milwaukee to claim his first career
victory in the series, and he'll need another similar result Sunday
if he wants to extend the championship battle with his Andretti Green
Racing teammates Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan into October.
Franchitti's first win of 2005 came at his adopted American hometown
track and it couldn't have come a moment too soon. It vaulted him up
to third in the IndyCar championship standings, albeit still 78 points
behind Wheldon, a four-time winner this year.
"We've had the fastest car almost every weekend this year but
something always seemed to keep us from capitalizing on it," said
Franchitti, whose campaign got off to a bad start with a DNF only 12
laps into the season opener. "We've had the car to win five races or
more. We just need to keep closing the deal."
"Dario had the toughest luck of everybody I think on the team this
year," added team owner Michael Andretti. "I think he's been doing
the best job in terms of setting his car up and racing, but he's just
always had a problem getting to the checkered flag without problems.
Hopefully now that he's broken the ice and he'll get on a roll."
The Milwaukee Mile is a track that will definitely play to
Franchitti's skill set. The lack of banking means outright speeds
aren't as fast as Phoenix or Richmond, making it more of a handling
track that requires teams and drivers to work hard to achieve a
balanced race car.
"I love the challenge of the short tracks," Franchitti remarked. "We
get along a lot better than we do with the big tracks. We just have a
better understanding of the car and what we have to do to it."
The remaining eight races on the IndyCar Series calendar provide an interesting
mix of tracks that should prevent Wheldon or anyone else from running
away with the title. Aside from Milwaukee, there is one other short
oval (Pikes Peak Int'l Raceway, Aug. 21) and two road races
(Infineon Raceway Aug. 29 and Watkins Glen Int'l, Sept. 25).
The remaining races are on fast 1.5- or 2-mile ovals that can turn
into a crapshoot.
With such a comfortable championship lead, Wheldon could afford to
cruise around and aim for top-five finishes every week. But after
suffering his first DNF of the season last week at Nashville, the
Englishman knows he can't afford another. He led the first practice
session at Milwaukee with a 165.605 mph lap.
"We're working on getting the car quicker, but right now we're
finding the track very slippery," Wheldon reported.
It might get even slicker; Friday's temperatures in the mid-80s could
rise by 10 degrees or more for race day, making 225 laps a physical
Helio Castroneves, who along with Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish
Jr. is considered the only realistic championship threat to the
Andretti Green trio atop the standings, was fastest overall on Friday
with a 166.293-mph lap in the afternoon session.
"We struggled this morning and seemed to struggle a little bit this
afternoon, but suddenly we found some stuff that was wrong with the
car," stated the Brazilian, whose performance in Carl Hogan's Lola in
the 1999 Champ Car race at Milwaukee caught the eye of his current
team owner, Roger Penske.
Another Milwaukee specialist is Patrick Carpentier, who set the
outright Milwaukee track record of 185.500 mph in a Champ Car in
1997. This is Carpentier's first Milwaukee appearance in the IndyCar Series and
he managed the seventh quickest Friday lap at 162.237 mph.
Just ahead of Carpentier on the timesheets was Danica Patrick
at163.385 mph. Milwaukee was the only oval track that Patrick raced
on prior to joining the IndyCar Series and she was happy to put her
Toyota Atlantic Championship experience to use (she finished sixth at
Milwaukee in 2003 and fourth in 2004). In fact, she was the quickest
of Rahal Letterman Racing's three drivers on Friday.
"I don't know if we can win the pole, but at least we will be in the
hunt, which is amazing considering how far we were off a few weeks
ago in Richmond," she said. "It's a good sign that we are making
progress as a team on the short ovals because that has been our
weakness this season."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.