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Friday, August 24, 2007
Franchitti hoping to stay grounded Sunday at Infineon

By Bruce Martin
Special to ESPN.com

SONOMA, Calif. -- Not too long ago, it appeared Dario Franchitti would fly away with the 2007 IndyCar Series title.

That was before he gave new meaning to the nickname "The Flying Scot."

Franchitti, an accomplished pilot, has had his past two races end with his car taking flight, and that has sent his bid for the season championship into a tailspin.

Franchitti will try to protect that lead as the IndyCar Series makes its third trip to Infineon Raceway for Sunday's Motorola 300 (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET). He leads New Zealand's Scott Dixon by just eight points while Brazil's Tony Kanaan is closing in rapidly, winning the past two races and cutting his deficit to 52 points.

With three races left in the IndyCar Series season, it's down to those three drivers who have a legitimate shot at winning the title.

That leaves Franchitti feeling the pressure as his once-huge points lead has tightened considerably. And he hopes he doesn't have a repeat performance of "Dario Franchitti's Flying Circus."

His troubles began at Michigan International Speedway three weeks ago, when he was side-by-side with England's Dan Wheldon at the front of the field with 56 laps left in the Firestone Indy 400. Wheldon's car drifted up the track on the back straight and bumped into Franchitti's car at over 220 mph.

That sent this year's Indianapolis 500-winning car 35 feet into the air before it landed upside-down on the racetrack. By the time Franchitti's flight was over, seven cars were damaged in a crash that decimated the field.

After 26 laps of caution, Kanaan was able to drive to the victory before criticizing his fellow drivers for what he considered dangerous driving. Franchitti sent Wheldon some angry text messages, putting a rift between the two former friends that carried over to Kentucky Speedway.

But when Franchitti went airborne for the second week in a row after encountering brain fade, not realizing the checkered flag was waving, he hit the back of Kosuke Matsuura's car like a cruise missile. That launched Franchitti's car into a 360-degree flip before it landed on all four wheels.

This time, Franchitti had no one to blame but himself.

"I thought to myself, 'Oh no, not again.' I'm pretty disgusted with myself right now," Franchitti said. "I made myself clear on who caused the incident [at Michigan], but this time the blame is all on me."

Perhaps Franchitti's two flights of fancy will help him at Infineon because it has the most elevation change of any road course on the schedule. Twisting and turning through Northern California's wine country, it goes uphill and then downhill through corkscrews, giving the drivers the sensation of riding a roller coaster.

Apparently, Franchitti gets some amusement out of this ride because he finished second to AGR teammate Marco Andretti last year, but the ever-tightening points race in 2007 is no laughing matter.

"The team has done a great job at Infineon giving us quick cars every time," Franchitti said. "This race is going to be very important for us in the championship with only three races left. We need to continue to do well with our strategy and in the pits in order to get the team another win."

Another victory may give Franchitti a chance to regain control of the title race, but Dixon is the winner of the last two road-course races. He won at Watkins Glen for the third straight season and backed that up with a victory on the Nashville Superspeedway oval before taking the checkered flag at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 22.

That has put Dixon in prime position for his second IndyCar title as he continues to chip away at Franchitti's lead.

"I know we made good gains in the points and that's what this is all about," Dixon said. "The pressure is on now and we're happy with where we are at right now."

Tony Kanaan
Tony Kanaan finds himself the undisputed leader at Andretti Green Racing.

Most of the focus will be on these two drivers for the final three races, but Kanaan has issued a challenge of his own that he can still win the title.

"If somebody makes a calendar, Dario should have been June, Scott should be July and I should be August," said Kanaan, who has won every IndyCar race this month after Franchitti dominated June's races and Dixon won three in July.

"We definitely don't need [Kanaan] winning any more, so we've definitely got to try to put that to a stop," Dixon said.

Handicapping the title race is one thing, but with three races to go, Kanaan is the only driver out of the three who can toss caution aside and race for the victory. Mistakes early in Sunday's race would be costly to Franchitti or Dixon.

There are plenty of other drivers who have motivation to win Sunday.

It was exactly one year ago when Marco Andretti became the youngest driver to ever win a major open-wheel race in history when the then-19-year-old drove to victory at Infineon. But this year, he doesn't have Bryan Herta running interference. Herta helped ensure Andretti had enough fuel to make it to the finish when he spun out late in the race. By getting to save fuel with a few extra caution laps, Andretti was able to drive to the win.

"Throughout my career, I've always had great races at Infineon," said Andretti, who has competed at the road course in other series, including the Indy Pro Series. "I've finished on the podium in almost every race I've entered there. It has got to be one of my favorite places to race, if not the favorite. It's a pretty challenging track and I like that. I came up on road courses and this takes me right back there, plus the facility is incredible. This is one of the favorite stops for everyone in the series."

Defending series champion Sam Hornish Jr. has two attempts left at scoring his first-ever road-course win before he has to decide if he wants to leave IndyCar for NASCAR. A road-course victory is about the only thing Hornish hasn't accomplished in this series.

Helio Castroneves is one of IndyCar's best road racers, but the Team Penske driver has found more than one way to drop out of the title race. He is sixth in the standings, but a whopping 160 points out of first place.

Castroneves has won the pole for all three street and road-course races held so far this season, including St. Petersburg, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. But Castroneves won just once, claiming St. Pete for the second year in a row.

Tomas Scheckter could continue to elevate Tony George's Vision Racing operation, which placed all three drivers in the top seven at Kentucky two weeks ago. Vision Racing has surpassed Panther Racing in IndyCar's middle tier of teams.

And, of course, Danica Patrick continues to search for her first IndyCar win, so she no longer has to answer the question, "When are you going to win?"

In the last road-course race at Mid-Ohio, Patrick started on the outside of the first row before she was blocked by pace car driver Johnny Rutherford, forcing her off-course at the start of the race. Despite that mishap, she finished fifth.

"We picked up a lot of confidence the last time out on a road course at Mid-Ohio and need to build on that momentum at Infineon," Patrick said.

And whatever happened to Wheldon? He started the season looking like he would dominate, but has been MIA ever since the Indianapolis 500.

These are simply subplots to the main drama involving the championship contenders.

The big question: Will Franchitti be "cleared for takeoff?"

Bruce Martin is a freelance contributor to ESPN.com.