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Iowa no easy day at the track

NEWTON, Iowa -- Last year's IZOD IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway kind of sums up the past two years for Dario Franchitti.

The four-time series champion didn't have much of a race. The Honda engine in his pole position-winning Target Ganassi Racing Dallara gave up on the warm-up lap for the Iowa Corn Indy 250, leaving the Scotsman to watch from the sideline.

That zero-lap DNF was the nadir of a rough 18-month stretch for Franchitti, who is winless in the year since the IndyCar Series last converged at Iowa, the shortest oval on the schedule. There have been moments of greatness, including poles this year at Long Beach and Detroit, but his race results have been patchy -- indicative of Honda's general lack of pace compared to rival Chevrolet and the Ganassi team's continued inability to consistently get the most out of the now two-year-old Dallara DW12 chassis.

After starting the season with DNFs at St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park that put him in an early hole in terms of the championship, Franchitti returns to Iowa having scrambled up to 10th in the standings. It hasn't been pretty; aside from a last-lap crash in the Indianapolis 500, Franchitti has finished between fourth and eighth in the past seven IndyCar Series races.

"There's a combination of many factors," said Franchitti, assessing his season to date. "Some were definitely at our door as far as the Target team; we didn't get the aero setup right. Honda was at a disadvantage at Indy. We were just never in the hunt. We were not happy in any way, shape or form with our performance.

"I was happy to get the pole at Detroit, particularly after the tough season we've had. I take my hat off to the Target team because they've done a lot of hard work, and Honda has made great strides. But that's what it takes to win a race or certainly a championship. You've got to be strong on all these types of tracks, and you've got to have perfect days."

Franchitti is not alone in failing to put together a perfect weekend in 2013. Will Power of Team Penske, who was Franchitti's main championship competition in 2010 and 2011, has gone winless even longer.

Ganassi's Scott Dixon last won at Mid-Ohio almost 11 months ago, and even on weekends when the Honda engine has been on the pace with Chevrolet, the Ganassi team has been bested by the likes of AJ Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

"The depth of the field right now is as good as I've ever seen it, and I was lucky enough to race in the late '90s against some of the best ever, and it's bloody hard work," Franchitti said. "In qualifying at Mid-Ohio last year, there was one-tenth [of a second] between the top six. That's madness, and it certainly keeps things interesting."

Iowa is a likely place for Franchitti to turn his season around. He has led more than 40 percent of the laps he's completed there, with wins in 2007 and '09. But he'll have to overcome a unique heat race qualification format and several former Iowa winners, including Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan.

Hunter-Reay is the defending race champion, having bested Marco in a battle of Andretti Autosport teammates to claim the 2012 race. But Iowa is one of Andretti's best tracks, with top-three finishes in four of six starts.

Andretti led the IndyCar Series championship earlier this year and is having the most consistent season of his career. Although he hasn't won a race in 2013, he lies third in the standings even after failing to finish last weekend in Milwaukee.

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Hunter-Reay For the fans, Iowa has the feel of a short track, but for the drivers, you feel like you're on a big track because of the banking. It's a hybrid track. The banking is there to support you, but it can bite you if you get too greedy on a pass. There's a couple of bumps in Turns 1-2 that can put you into the wall.

"-- Ryan Hunter-Reay

Team Penske's Helio Castroneves leads the points race by 16 over defending series champion Hunter-Reay and 50 over Andretti.

"Both on the No. 25 side and as a team, we've traditionally been strong in Iowa," Andretti said. "We need to continue that this year. Milwaukee didn't go as planned, so we really need to make up some points and get the lead back. This is as good of place as any to do that. We're coming for a win but definitely would like to at least keep the consistency going."

The three qualifying heat races have been lengthened from 30 to 50 laps this year. The format is confusing, but it will pay additional championship points -- including nine points to the driver who wins the top heat race and starts the 250-lap main show on pole position.

Every other IndyCar race except the Indianapolis 500 awards only one point to the fastest qualifier. The Indianapolis pole winner receives 15 points.

"The strategy is certainly different this time around with the heat races paying points, so we need to focus on not only being fast at the end of the race but coming right out of the box strong," said Hunter-Reay, who scored his second win of the season last week at Milwaukee.

"Iowa, last year, was the second win in our three-race streak," he added. "We need to operate at our full potential to gain maximum points in the title fight."

Iowa is the third of four consecutive oval races for the IndyCar Series, with each track featuring remarkably different characteristics.

Although the 0.875-mile Iowa circuit is shorter than the Milwaukee Mile, it's higher banking and wider track surface make it a much faster track. The Indy cars get around in less than 18 seconds at an average speed of more than 180 mph in qualifying.

"For the fans, Iowa has the feel of a short track, but for the drivers, you feel like you're on a big track because of the banking," said Hunter-Reay. "It's a hybrid track. The banking is there to support you, but it can bite you if you get too greedy on a pass. There's a couple of bumps in Turns 1-2 that can put you into the wall.

"It's difficult, and it changes a lot during the course over a tire run, from beginning to end. This year, we're racing in daylight hours for the first time I can remember. It's going to be a different race this year."

The 50-lap heat races will be streamed live on indycar.com at 6:45 p.m. ET Saturday, while the Iowa Corn Indy 250 will be televised on ABC on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET.