HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The Izod IndyCar Series is set for what is likely to be its final Miami-area appearance when the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 is run Saturday night.
Indy car racing has endured a hit-and-miss relationship with the Miami market, but the trend in recent years hasn't been positive. CART ran a successful street course race at Tamiami Park in the late 1980s, and made an one-off appearance at a street course near downtown Miami in 1995.
When Ralph Sanchez opened Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1996, the CART race was the track's premier event. Sanchez sold the track to Penske Speedways. Homestead became one of several tracks acquired by International Speedway Corp. when it took over Penske's tracks in 1999. Since then, the track's focus has been almost completely on NASCAR.
Homestead served as the CART season opener from 1996-2000 and was the IndyCar Series opener from 2001-2008. The track was filled to its 40,000-seat capacity for the initial few years, but interest waned as the CART/IRL open-wheel war waged. The past two years, Homestead has moved to the closer's portion of the schedule, but attendance remained lackluster. A crowd of perhaps 20,000 is expected for Saturday night's 300-mile contest.
The sparse audience is likely to get a whale of a show. Now in its third iteration, Homestead always has been a better track for Indy cars than stock cars. The original layout was a 1.5-mile rectangle that looked like a downsized Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The ends of the track were rounded in 1998, and higher banking was introduced a few years later to make the track more compatible with NASCAR stock cars.
Among 1.5-mile Indy car tracks, Homestead demands more out of a driver than cookie-cutter tracks like Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway but less than Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. It's not quite wide and flat enough to allow continuous side-by-side racing, but it's racy enough to allow passing.
Of course, the chief storyline this weekend is the championship battle between Team Penske's Will Power and Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. For the fifth straight year, the IndyCar Series championship has come down to the final event, and the previous four title tilts were not determined until the last corner of the last lap.
Power leads Franchitti by 12 points, so if Power finishes ahead of his rival -- or even within a position or two -- the Australian will claim his first IndyCar crown. Seemingly insignificant bonus points (two for pole position, one for leading the most laps) could play a huge part in the championship outcome.
In the 2009 championship finale, Franchitti committed early to a fuel-saving strategy, and after the race went green basically from start to finish the conservative approach paid off in the form of an easy race win for the Scotsman. Championship rivals Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe literally raced for the win, but they had to pit for a splash of fuel in the closing laps, handing the race and the championship to Franchitti.
We know how to get the job done. We're not going to go out and change our game plan. We're going to go out to win the race. We've got to make up the points.
”-- Dario Franchitti
Franchitti has raced in every Homestead Indy car race but one, so in terms of experience at the Florida oval he has Power covered. By contrast, Power has made only one start at Homestead, completing only 25 laps in his IndyCar Series debut in 2008.
"We know how to get the job done," Franchitti remarked. "We're not going to go out and change our game plan. We're going to go out to win the race. We've got to make up the points. Getting a 13-point advantage is not going to be easy, but we think we've got the equipment to do it. So, we've been talking a lot this week about the ins and outs and the championships and the points."
Power's competitive third-place run in the last race at Motegi, Japan, gave him the confidence to approach Homestead in a more aggressive fashion.
"I think this is the first time I've been in the position in my career where I've got all the tools to win races," Power said. "I've got a fantastic team that has all the engineering and all the personnel to give you the best possible chance of winning, and the best equipment.
"So, the only thing that I saw coming this season that would be tough for me is really getting up to speed on ovals, which I have. And I feel as though I've learned a lot, and I feel I'm in a position to win on ovals now."
Power and Franchitti's teammates -- Dixon at Ganassi, Briscoe and Helio Castroneves at Penske -- could affect the outcome of the championship.
With a 10-point difference between first and second place, having one of the other Penske drivers win the race could be Power's best ally in terms of the championship.
Castroneves is the hottest driver in Indy car racing, coming off two consecutive race wins. Along with the other Brazilian drivers in the race (Tony Kanaan, Rafa Matos, Vitor Meira and rookie Ana Beatriz), Castroneves lives in the Miami area and considers Homestead his home race in America. All the Brazilians will be desperate to emerge victorious in front of a partisan Latino crowd.
Another driver to watch this weekend is former series champion Dan Wheldon, a three-time Homestead winner. Wheldon is running his last race in an acrimonious two-year stint with Panther Racing and will be keen to score his first win for the team. Panther is teamed with Ed Carpenter and Vision Racing this weekend, which should prove to be a competitive combination.
The Homestead race itself is likely to be a sideshow to the championship battle between Power and Franchitti. Who will fight and who will falter on Saturday night?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.