The Infineon Indy Grand Prix may prove to be the wild-card race of the three-man battle for the IndyCar Series championship. Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti have all experienced heartbreak at the physically demanding California road course, and the last road racing event of the IndyCar season could make or break their title hopes.
A year ago heading to Sonoma, Dixon enjoyed a 78-point lead over Helio Castroneves but barely hung on over the final three races to secure his second IndyCar Series championship. HCN is 101 points back this year, but including Infineon, four races remain for him to make up that deficit.
Meanwhile, Dixon has his hands full with Briscoe, Castroneves' Penske Racing teammate, who stands only three points out of the championship lead. Within 20 points lies Dixon's 2007 championship sparring partner -- and current Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate -- Franchitti, who probably has the most to gain or lose this weekend.
While Franchitti has been superb in 2009 on street courses, winning at Long Beach and Toronto, he has struggled to match his teammate on natural road courses.
"We just need to figure out these road courses with the Target team for my driving style and that will definitely give us a leg up, I think," Franchitti said. "Obviously Scott has it figured out but his driving style is almost 180 degrees from mine. Scott likes a bit of oversteer; he doesn't mind the back of the car sliding around quite a lot. The more oversteer, the better for him, I think.
"We have to start finishing in front of Ryan and Scott, otherwise it's getting more and more difficult every week."
Franchitti appeared to be headed to victory at Infineon in 2007, but was crashed back to third place by his then-teammate Marco Andretti. That handed the victory to a surprised Dixon.
But New Zealander Dixon and the Ganassi team took a conservative approach last year at Infineon and it bit them, as he finished the race in 12th place and lost almost half of his comfortable championship lead.
This year, he vows they will be racing to win instead of racing for points.
Darrell Ingham/Getty ImagesScott Dixon was not all smiles after Sonoma last season, when he and his team blew the car setup.
"It's going to come down to the wire," Dixon said. "Penske definitely aren't going to let up. My teammate Dario isn't going to let up either. He's in the same equipment, so that makes it even tougher. Whether we see a runaway start the next couple races, who knows? Penske is going to be extremely tough to beat at Sonoma."
Team Penske has dominated qualifying during the IndyCar Series' summer road racing swing and Briscoe probably rates as the outright favorite this weekend. Penske will again run three cars this weekend, and Will Power will be right at the front in the yellow No. 12 car.
Briscoe claimed his first IndyCar Series pole position at Sonoma in 2005 while driving for the Ganassi team and led 16 laps before crashing out while he and Castroneves were trying to lap Danica Patrick.
Last year at Infineon, Briscoe finished second to Castroneves in a Penske 1-2. The team will shoot for its first 1-2-3 finish since 1994 on Sunday.
"I've earned poles at both permanent road courses this season and finished second twice," said Briscoe. "Hopefully this weekend, we'll be able to move up just one finishing spot. The championship battle is coming down to the wire, so we have to make sure we maintain our focus from here on out."
Despite the addition of a mild push-to-pass system, on-track passing is virtually impossible for the IndyCars at Infineon. Qualifying position and race pit-stop strategy and execution are the keys to finishing well.
It promises to be an entertaining setup for the final three races of the season, all of which will be staged on the fast, intermediate ovals that generally produce the IndyCar Series' most competitive and thrilling racing. If Castroneves can prevail at Infineon while the championship leaders falter, the title chase will get even more exciting.