JOLIET, Ill. -- Cruising around behind the pace car with 30 laps remaining Saturday night in the Peak Oil and Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, IndyCar Series championship leader Will Power was out front, seemingly on the brink of scoring his first career oval racing victory.
Dario Franchitti was in ninth place, stuck in traffic in what he figured was maybe a fifth-place car.
Funny how a race -- and maybe even a season -- can change so much in the course of a single pit stop.
Franchitti exited the pits after a yellow-flag stop on Lap 172 without fresh Firestone tires but with a lead he would not relinquish. Power took on four fresh tires but took off without enough fuel in his Verizon Team Penske car to make the finish.
Coupled with Franchitti's surprise victory, Power's crushing 16th-place finish at Chicagoland added up to a 36-point swing in the championship sweepstakes. After 13 of 17 races, Power still holds the top spot, but at 23 points, his advantage is less than half of the 59-point cushion he arrived with.
Franchitti conceded that his third win of the season (and 26th of his Indy car career) felt unexpectedly good.
"This one feels really special for some reason -- maybe because we pulled it out the way we did," he said. "It was a great turnaround from about halfway through the race."
Backed by team owner (and Franchitti's race strategist) Chip Ganassi, engineer Chris Simmons made the call to make the No. 10 car's final stop a gas-and-go.
"We're basically a fifth- or sixth-[place] car," explained Ganassi. "That's our only shot to win it."
Simmons had noticed that several other cars in the race that had run out of sequence on their pit stops -- notably Sarah Fisher, who led Laps 81-91 and held second place for quite some time -- could maintain pace with the leaders on older tires.
"We were OK, we just weren't very fast," Franchitti said. "Chris made the call not to take tires to give us track position. We had a lot of faith in the Firestone tires. They called off the tires very late into the pit stop -- I think I was three pits away. He said, 'Leave the tires on,' and they got me out very quickly."
Meanwhile, Power's stop was a disaster. The No. 12 car did not take on enough fuel to make it to the finish, and the Verizon Penske crew informed their driver right away.
"I couldn't believe it," Power said. "That was just a mistake we couldn't afford."
The Australian stayed out, hoping for an extended yellow that would help him make the checkered flag without stopping. But he finally had to pull in with four laps to go.
I wanted to win so badly. But that's racing. These things happen, and we just have to keep fighting on. That's life.
”-- Will Power
"Oh man, that sucked!" Power lamented. "I wanted to win so badly. But that's racing. These things happen, and we just have to keep fighting on. That's life."
But the story of the night was the huge championship swing. Power looked good enough to have won at Chicagoland, but he still appears to be snakebitten on the ovals.
Meanwhile, two-time IndyCar Series titlist Franchitti is driving as well as ever at age 37 and looks poised to make another championship run.
"This obviously makes things tougher for the championship, but we're still in front and we proved how competitive we can be on the ovals,"
Power said. "We'll move on and we'll work harder next week at Kentucky."
"Our car was a lot better in clean air, and a lot of that was the help we were getting from Dan," Franchitti said. "He was pushing me all the time, just helping me. I was giving him room at the bottom, and we were working together very, very well."
Franchitti refuses to accept that he is suddenly the championship favorite as the IndyCar Series heads into the final month of the season.
"I think we saw tonight how quickly these things can change,"
Franchitti said. "We're just going to keep going.
"It's far from over," he added. "It's going to be interesting, these last three races. It's going to be a fight to the wire. The Penske team is very strong, and Will is doing a good job -- he's learning quickly.
"Trust me, I'll be pedaling as hard as I can."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.