Tight title battle renews at Kentucky as season hits home stretch

The Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway (ESPN2, Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET) is the setup race for what should be an exciting battle for the IndyCar Series championship.

Teams and drivers will get a one-week break following the Kentucky race, which is the 14th of 17 on the 2007 Indy Racing League slate. Then the last three events (road races at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma Calif., and Belle Isle, Mich., with the finale on the Chicagoland Speedway oval) come in rapid-fire succession between Aug. 26 and Sept. 9.

Dario Franchitti left Michigan International Speedway last Sunday in possession of the same 24-point championship lead over Scott Dixon that he arrived with. He was fortunate to leave with his health after a harrowing airborne crash.

The wreck wrote off Franchitti's Indianapolis 500-winning Dallara-Honda, but it didn't do any damage to his resolve -- or that of his team. Andretti Green Racing built a replacement car that the Scotsman will race this weekend.

"Last week was unfortunate, but we have to put it behind us and look forward to this weekend," Franchitti said. "We had a great car last week at Michigan, and it is going to be equally as important for us to show up with a good car this week at Kentucky.

"The Canadian Club team has done really well giving me the setups needed to keep us in the championship battle."

Franchitti's streak of 11 consecutive top-5 finishes was broken along with his car at Michigan, but he still is the most consistent driver in the series this year. He and Dixon each have won three races.

Dixon fell 65 points behind Franchitti after Dario won at Richmond International Raceway in late June, but three consecutive wins by Dixon narrowed the points gap. The New Zealander's Target/Ganassi Racing entry got swept into the Franchitti accident at Michigan, although he was able to coax the car through a couple extra laps to gain a few points.

"It's like Michigan never happened, because the points are the same as they were coming in," Dixon said. "Coming off of three straight wins, you think you'd be in the championship lead or would've cut a lot more into a lead. The good thing for us is that we've been winning races. The unfortunate part is that Dario is still on the podium taking second or third. It's frustrating on our behalf, and I'm sure it's frustrating on theirs. Every time they've tried to stiffen up, we've been able to do a little bit better.

"A mistake is going to cost you dearly," Dixon added. "You have to be consistent, but you have to go in there with the mindset of winning the race. You have to try to get back to the points lead anytime you can."

Last year, the IndyCar Series championship was a four-man battle by the time of the Kentucky race, but this year, Franchitti and Dixon are the only realistic contenders. Tony Kanaan -- the winner at Michigan -- is 81 points out of the lead, while Dan Wheldon faces a 115-point deficit.

Kanaan tested for AGR recently at Kentucky and said "things were much better than I expected.

Like Texas, Kentucky Speedway is a magical place for me. This is the track where it all began, and it's still a place where we find success. Last season the team led most of the race and won when we needed to and I assumed control of the points lead heading into the final stretch of races.

Sam Hornish Jr.

"We know that if we want to get back in the championship race, Team 7-Eleven has to keep winning races, and that's what we intend to do. We did exactly what we needed to do at Michigan, and we need to keep the momentum going at Kentucky."

Last year's 300-miler at Kentucky was fought out between Wheldon and Sam Hornish Jr., who prevailed for his second win at the raceway. The American ace led his first laps of IndyCar Series competition as a rookie in 2000 at Kentucky, and he nearly lapped the field on the way to his 2003 victory.

Scott Sharp (2005) is the only other former Kentucky winner in this weekend's 18-car field.

"Like Texas, Kentucky Speedway is a magical place for me," Hornish said. "This is the track where it all began, and it's still a place where we find success. Last season, the team led most of the race and won when we needed to, and I assumed control of the points lead heading into the final stretch of races."

Dixon could take over the lead in this year's championship if he wins this weekend and Franchitti finishes eighth or worse. Conversely, a dominant win from Franchitti coupled with a bad race for Dixon could result in a 75-point cushion for Dario.

Dixon finished second to Hornish at Kentucky during his 2003 championship run, and they repeated the result last year. He probably would be pleased with a third runner-up finish at the bumpy Bluegrass oval -- unless the driver who beats him is Franchitti.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.