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Thursday, June 3, 2010
Penske, Ganassi fuel IndyCar Series

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The power of Team Penske is perennial, but it lacks an IndyCar Series championship since 2006. Fresh-faced driver and overall points leader Will Power is raising expectations of shutting down the two-year championship reign of the team's top adversary, Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Adding fuel to the Penske fire was Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti's win at Sunday's Indianapolis 500. Not only did Franchitti add his name to the select list of drivers to win multiple 500s, but Penske's three drivers had an awful day, all finishing behind Franchitti teammate and 2008 series champion Scott Dixon.

Helio Castroneves was looking to become the first repeat Indy champ since he did it in 2001 and 2002, and only the fourth four-time winner, but he never had a chance and finished ninth. Teammate Ryan Briscoe finished 24th and Power placed eighth, good enough to maintain an 11-point lead over Franchitti in the overall chase for the series championship.

"Now, obviously, that's all we've got to look to this year," Briscoe said Thursday as the Indy teams arrived at Texas Motor Speedway to begin preparations for Saturday night's Firestone 550K. "Every year you go into it and the No. 1 goal is the Indy 500. The No. 2 goal is the championship. Will's leading the championship. Helio's in good position. I've gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, but there's a long way to go.

"Between the three of us, we're going to be doing all we can to get one of our cars the championship."

The Penske and Ganassi teams are dominating the IndyCar Series, which heads into its seventh of 17 races. Saturday night's trek around the 1.5-mile oval is the third of four consecutive races on oval tracks after four road races to start the season.

Ganassi and Penske drivers have won six of the first seven races. Penske took the first three road races to open the season with the 29-year-old Power winning the first two, followed by Castroneves' only win of the year. If the rivalry needed stoking, the Penske team got it going quickly.

"I realized just how much Chip [Ganassi] enjoys winning after the first two races," said Power, who is in his first full season with Team Penske after filling in at times last year while Castroneves was involved in court proceedings for tax evasion charges of which he was acquitted. "When I went out and won the first two and Helio won the third race, he [Ganassi] was really putting the pressure on his team."

Ganassi's team responded. After Ryan Hunter-Reay with Andretti Autosport snapped the Penske run with a victory in the series' fourth race, the Ganassi boys have claimed the last two heading into TMS.

Dixon claimed the first oval race in Kansas City on May 1 and Franchitti followed with his Indy 500 win last Sunday. Franchitti and Dixon sit in second and third, respectively, in the points standings, sandwiched by leader Power and Castroneves in fourth. Briscoe is seventh.

"It's the same as it's always been. They're the two best teams and it's an iconic rivalry," Briscoe said. "They're the guys we need to beat to go out and win races and they look at us the same way. Yep, there's nothing better than healthy competition like that."

Some argue that too much competition between two all-powerful teams is not such a good thing. Especially now, three seasons into the merger that finally reunified American open-wheel racing after a contentious 12 years. More than ever since, the level of competition and the depth of talent in the IndyCar Series are regarded as being at an all-time high.

"Each year you think it can't get more difficult and it does," Franchitti said. "It just gets closer and the level of team preparation and the standard of drivers just gets higher. You can't afford any slips. You can't afford any weakness or any bad weekend because it will come back and haunt you in the championship standings."

Franchitti raced for the Andretti team in 2007, bringing it the Indy 500 and the series championship. Andretti also won the series championship in 2005 with Dan Wheldon and in 2004 with Tony Kanaan. Ganassi has won three titles, including the last two, since 2003. Penske has earned just one in that time -- in 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr.

With Franchitti now driving for Ganassi, the balance of power is centered with the two super teams. Each race seems to be a fight between Penske and Ganassi for the top four spots, and it would be a surprise only if the two teams aren't neck-and-neck in the points standings as the season hits the stretch drive in September.

While some might question if the two-team domination is healthy for the sport, others, such as three-time Indy champ Johnny Rutherford, have no doubt.

"Is Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon bad for NASCAR?" Rutherford asked. "I don't think so. Everybody was booing [four-time reigning NASCAR champion] Jimmie Johnson because he was successful. They want to see something new and different."

At TMS on Saturday night, the smart money is on more of the same.

Jeff Caplan covers motorsports for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.