IZOD IndyCar Series Title Contenders Ready to Clash in the Commonwealth
The road to this season's IZOD IndyCar Series championship will wind through the Oct. 2 "Kentucky Indy 300" and any successful run for experienced contenders Dario Franchitti, Will Power and Scott Dixon will be rooted in managing the finest details of their performances during the closing two-race stretch of the season.
Power will arrive in the Bluegrass State holding the lead in the standings and an 11-point advantage over the three-time defending series champion Franchitti. Dixon, the 2008 and 2003 series title winner who earned his fifth straight top three points finish last season, lurks third in the title tilt and a manageable 59 points off the lead.
Team Penske's Power, who has taken five road/street course victories this season, earned his only oval-track victory of this campaign in the second of two Texas Motor Speedway events. He's pocketed a total of four top-five results and an average 10th-place through seven oval-track events.
The long-time road/street course specialist's oval-track success this season has him more at ease as he attempts to close his fourth IICS season with his first career championship.
"I feel comfortable on mile-and-a-half ovals; they're definitely my oval-racing strength," Power said. He will make his fourth career Kentucky Speedway IICS start next week hoping to build on knowledge gained during his series track-best eighth-place showing in 2010.
"We need to build on what we had last year. The tire is changing every year and that's been the big thing this season. We've gone to the tracks and the set-up has been quite different. On these tracks (such as Kentucky) that are flat out, sometimes you're just at the mercy of the speed of the car and don't even know where speed comes from. That's the thing about these mile-and-a-half ovals with the downforce level we run, when you get stuck on the white line and you find speed in weird places.
"If we can have the speed we had last year and considering what the tires are this year, I'll be really happy. Last year, I thought we had the car to win and a little mistake on an out lap cost us six or seven positions. We've just got to do the job," Power said.
After falling five points short of claiming last season's IICS title, he's using that experience to form a new mindset for the "Kentucky Indy 300" and the Oct. 16 Las Vegas Motor Speedway season finale.
"You have to go through it one or two times to know how you have to be mentally. Last year was definitely that (for me), no question. (My mindset) is different this year. There's a lot of thought on what I'm doing and not what other people are doing.
"I think the person that has the most pressure on them is the person that puts the most pressure on themselves. If you're mentally in tune with how you've got to be, you should feel no pressure. To me, it's just another two races and the key is to finish ahead of the 10 car in both of them. It's as simple as that," Power said.
Franchitti, who held a 62-point championship advantage over Power before placing 20th in the Aug. 14 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, has earned two fourth-place finishes and an eighth-place showing in the Infineon Raceway, Baltimore, Md., and Motegi, Japan road/street course events that preceded the "Kentucky Indy 300."
The Ganassi Racing veteran described the calculated approach he'll employ while attempting to collect his third straight and fourth championship trophy in five years.
"It's been a difficult couple of weeks. Japan, especially, has tightened the thing up a bit. We've definitely let some of that lead go through my mistake last week, some bad luck and some other stuff. The difference is last year, the first time I was ahead of Will was the end of the last race. He's now ahead of me. It's still 11 points and it's very, very doable.
"You're not racing one or two guys. You're racing the whole field, especially on the one-and-a-half mile tracks. I know what I've got to do and every member of Team Target knows what they've got to do. We'll do the same things we've done the last three or four years, which is ultimately go out there and do our best. We'll see if we can get it done. We'll just deal with our side of the fence and leave the other stuff to Will and the Penske guys," Franchitti said.
He is set to make his seventh career IICS Kentucky Speedway start next weekend. He nailed down his series track-best fifth-place finish last season and has generated a total of five top-10 finishes at the track.
"We have to come up with a better set-up than we had last year at Kentucky. We were not very good and neither of the Target cars were very strong. We have to improve.
"We went some way in improving our car at Texas last year and won the first race there this year. Hopefully, some of the stuff we learned there will transfer over to Kentucky, although there's slightly different architecture.
"I was watching the NASCAR races here and it doesn't look like the track has gotten any smoother over the winter. Pit exit has changed a little bit as has pit road. All those things need to be taken into account and we need to come up with a fast car, ultimately. It was probably 20 tiny things that worked at Texas. As usual with racing, and probably any sport, it's the details that make all the difference," Franchitti said.
Dixon will come into the "Kentucky Indy 300" with solid momentum after earning his second victory and fifth consecutive top-five finish of the season in Motegi, Japan. The Ganassi Racing driver realizes he will need more than just momentum in the closing races of the season if he's to capture a third career IICS crown.
"Our nine car is a little ways back. We'll probably have to have, not to wish any bad luck on anyone, Will and Dario have at least another bad race to put us right in contention at Vegas. I think the team has been pushing pretty well. It's going to be difficult, but there's no pressure, we've got nothing to lose. We'll keep pushing and if I can't win, we will definitely try to push Dario to take home the championship for the team," Dixon said.
He has a chance to make his own championship luck by building on his strong Kentucky Speedway track record during his ninth career series start in the commonwealth on Oct. 2. He rolled to a 2008 victory from the pole position and also started the 2009 event from the top spot on the grid. He placed seventh for the second straight time at the track last season and has earned a total of four top-five and six top-10 IICS finishes on the Kentucky tri-oval, including second-place showings in 2007, 2006 and 2003. His average Kentucky Speedway finish is seventh.
"I think the rules have changed (for this race) slightly from last year. They've taken some wing out of the car which should speed them up. That will be good for racing, I think.
"Kentucky seems each year to evolve a little bit with the surface of the track. We will just see how that is and what areas we need to work on. Our team generally develops the car quite a bit over the winter and we've made a few gains from last year on the mile-and-a-half ovals. Hopefully, they transfer to this track and we'll find the speed to beat the Penske cars," Dixon concluded.
The 12th IICS event in track history will conclude a tripleheader race weekend which opens October 1 with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) "Kentucky 225". The weekend additionally includes a 100-mile Firestone Indy Lights race Oct. 2.
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Story by Mike Schmaltz