Thursday, August 27, 2009
Next stop for IndyCar title contenders: Chicagoland
In each of the past three years, the IndyCar Series championship was decided at Chicagoland Speedway. The 1.5-mile oval, an hour west of The Loop in Joliet, does not host the IndyCar finale this year (that honor, for the first time, goes to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 10), but Saturday night's PEAK Indy 300 could have major implications for the three title protagonists.
It's Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe up against Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, separated by just 20 points with three races remaining. Franchitti and Dixon have four wins apiece compared to Briscoe's two, but seven second-place finishes have the Australian atop the points standings.
Briscoe is astute enough to know that second-place finishes in the remaining races might not be enough to hold off one of the Ganassi duo.
"Looking at how this championship has gone so far, no one can hang on to the lead," Briscoe said. "I think we're seeing that wins reward greatly, and I think whoever's going to win this championship needs to go out and win races. Obviously, you need to finish and collect points. But getting those 50 points is always really important."
Dixon suffered a 40-point swing compared to Franchitti this past weekend at Infineon Raceway, and the driver of Ganassi's No. 9 car can't afford another bad weekend if he wants to repeat as series champion.
The New Zealander finished second the past two years at Chicagoland, losing the championship to Franchitti in 2007 but prevailing over race winner Helio Castroneves in 2008.
Castroneves, who has dropped from championship contention with an inconsistent season, is somewhat the X-factor in the remaining races. If he runs up front, he can help steal points from the Ganassi drivers.
Franchitti, who is just three points behind Briscoe in this year's title chase, won his last Chicagoland start while driving for Andretti Green Racing in 2007. He passed Dixon on the last lap to win the race and the championship when the Target car ran out of fuel.
The Ganassi team was surprisingly off form at the most recent IndyCar race on a 1.5-mile speedway. That event, at Kentucky Speedway on July 31, was the first using the IRL's revised aerodynamic rules.
Ganassi did not use the newly optional sidepod extensions, and when the recently resurfaced track didn't grip up as much as expected in the cool night conditions, Dixon and Franchitti found they were lacking downforce.
"In retrospect, I guess you could say we perhaps got it wrong at Kentucky," Ganassi aerodynamicist Andy Brown said. "In the past, we've run less drag than everybody else, and it's been an approach that worked well for us where we walked away from the front. The way the championship is now, you have to go for wins. As close as the top of the points table has been, it's difficult to play the percentage game. You really have to go for wins right now. We went for it and didn't quite pull it off that time."
The Chicagoland race is expected to be reminiscent of closely packed Indy car races from the past. The availability of additional aero options turned the Kentucky race into a barn burner, decided in a photo finish in Briscoe's favor over Vision Racing's Ed Carpenter.
Briscoe believes the racing could be even better this weekend.
"Lots of two- and three-wide," he said. "You can find yourself between first and 10th in a heartbeat. It's going to be tough racing. Especially with the aero changes we saw come onboard in Kentucky, it's going to allow everybody to be very aggressive and run nose-to-tail very closely. It was already like that last year, so even more so this year, I'm predicting."
This will be the IndyCar Series' final event on U.S. soil prior to the season finale in Florida in October. The Indy Japan 300 will run at Twin Ring Motegi on Sept. 19.
No matter how close the championship battle is coming out of Chicagoland, it will be a challenge for the series to maintain a place in the minds of American sports fans, especially with football season starting.
An amazing finish Saturday night -- especially if media magnet Danica Patrick is involved -- certainly would help.