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Friday, September 30, 2011
Classic duel to the finish shaping up

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

SPARTA, Ky. -- With all due respect to Scott Dixon, the battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship could be retitled "Two and a Half Men."

While Dario Franchitti and Will Power have dominated the last two IndyCar seasons, Dixon is the only driver who has kept them honest. The New Zealander won the most recent IndyCar race at Motegi, Japan, to remain mathematically eligible for this year's crown.

Dixon actually leads the oval racing portion of the IndyCar schedule, putting him on track to win the series' A.J. Foyt Trophy. But he trails Power by 59 points in the overall standings; Franchitti, who led the points chase throughout the summer, is now 11 points behind Power.

Dario Franchitti
Dario Franchitti, left, has a solid shot at another title. Teammate Scott Dixon has some heavy lifting to do if he wants one this year.

"It is absolutely awesome that this late in the game the championship is so open and undecided," said Newman/Haas Racing's Oriol Servia, who ranks fourth in the standings, but a distant 145 points out of the lead. "Both Power and Franchitti have been, once more, the two men to beat all season long and it is only fair that the championship is between them."

Power has six wins for Team Penske, the same as the combined total for Ganassi Racing teammates Franchitti (four) and Dixon (two).

Franchitti has dominated the laps-led category, with 741 to Power's 470 and Dixon's 190. No other driver has led more than 100 laps in 2011, demonstrating the superiority the leading trio has displayed.

The championship is the obvious storyline heading into this weekend's Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway, the penultimate round of the title fight. But there are some interesting twists to consider.

The last two races of the season are on 1.5-mile ovals, and although he scored his first oval win earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway, the jury is still out on Power's oval-racing mettle.

Perhaps balancing that out, the Ganassi team has struggled at Kentucky Speedway the last two years.

"Yeah, but we struggled at Texas in the past and we got that sorted this year," Franchitti said. "It's up to us to get it right at Kentucky."

Both Dixon and Franchitti have won multiple IndyCar Series championships; Power is seeking his first title.

Last year, Power held a 60-point lead with four oval races remaining, but lost the title to Franchitti in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Power's lead with two races to go last year was 17 points.

"In the last five races, I haven't thought about points at all," Power said. "I've just gone out and done my job as best I possibly could. Everything else is out of my control. I can't control what other people do and I can't control what happens during a race with other competitors or Race Control.

"I reckon you have to have gone through it one or two times to understand how you need to be mentally," he added. "It's definitely different this year -- a lot of thought on what I'm doing and not on what other people are doing."

That sounds suspiciously similar to the mantra Franchitti has been reciting all summer long: One race at a time.

"It's going to be an interesting couple of weeks," said the three-time series champion. "You're not racing one or two guys; you're racing the whole field, especially on the 1½-mile track.

"We'll do the same thing as we've done the last three or four years, which is ultimately go out and there, do our best, and see how it ends up."

Will Power
Will Power has put himself in position in 2011 to win the title that got away in 2010.

Unlike last year, Franchitti held the points lead for most of the season. But a restart crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and a relatively poor weekend in Japan (eighth place) turned what was once a 62-point lead into an 11-point deficit.

"We've definitely let some of that lead go through my mistake [in Japan, where Franchitti tangled with Ryan Briscoe on a restart], some bad luck and some other stuff, but I think the difference from last year is the first time I was ahead of Will was at the end of the last race," Franchitti said. "He's now ahead of me. It's very doable so we'll see if we can get it done.

"In 2009, between Briscoe, Scott and myself, it literally changed every week. So you learn to almost ignore these things and just focus on doing the job and putting the championship out of your mind. If you do a good job, you win the championship."

A record 29 entries will contest the 300-miler at Kentucky Speedway, including Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who will drive the No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports machine normally occupied by Alex Tagliani.

Wheldon is using the Kentucky race as a tuneup for Las Vegas, where he will attempt to win a $5 million prize to be split with a fan.

Other notables entered this weekend include Townsend Bell (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing); former Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice (Panther Racing); and Ed Carpenter, who finished second at Kentucky Speedway the last two years.

The Kentucky IndyCar race has often provided its share of surprises, but Servia predicts the usual top dogs will prevail this weekend.

"The ovals have usually been the weakest point for Power, but I believe that these next two races he will be better turning left than he has ever been," Servia said. "At the same time, we all know Dario will just not disappoint when it counts the most.

"It will be a very exciting finish, especially when you put in the equation all the teammates that will play a part in it. Hopefully some quick outsider like us will spice the mix up."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.