Another title race to the finish
Will Power's strategy in the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway is simple, though not necessarily easy: Keep rival Dario Franchitti in his rearview mirrors.
Accomplish the feat for 200 laps and Power will claim his first IZOD IndyCar Series title. Falter and the wily Franchitti will secure his third championship in the past four years. It's that simple.
For the 11th time in the 15-year, 202-race history of the IZOD IndyCar Series - and the fifth season in a row -- the driver championship will be decided in the final event.
Through a 16-race duel across three continents, Verizon Team Penske driver Power and Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Franchitti have been piling up points. Power takes a 12-point advantage into the season finale, which will feature a 27-car field on the 1.5-mile oval.
A look at the past four equally dramatic seasons:
Who: Dario Franchitti, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon
The championship battle was heated throughout the season, with leader in the standings being swapped 15 times over the 17 races. Dixon led entering the finale by five points over Franchitti, his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, and by eight over Team Penske's Briscoe.
In the Firestone Indy 300, Dixon and Briscoe dueled at the front, both seeking to pick up the critical two bonus points for leading the most laps after Franchitti earned the one bonus point for starting from the pole. "It's pretty much whoever beats who is going to walk away with the championship," Dixon said before the race.
What the contenders didn't figure on was that the race would be caution-free for the first time in series history. No crashes, no debris. Not even a sandwich wrapper brought out a yellow flag. So, while Dixon and Briscoe were racing each other, Franchitti was on a fuel-conservation strategy.
It proved effective when both Dixon and Briscoe had to pit for a splash of ethanol - their fourth stops of the day -- in the final 10 laps. Franchitti coaxed the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car to the finish line on three stops for fuel. For the plan to work, he needed everything to go right. It did.
Franchitti won the race and title by 11 points over Dixon.
What Franchitti said: "It was physically very difficult with no yellows. Our strategy, after the halfway point, it wouldn't have mattered if there were no yellows or not. We were always, from Lap 100 on, in a very good position."
Who: Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves
With three races remaining, Scott Dixon appeared to already have his name on the championship trophy. He had earned his long-awaited first Indianapolis 500 victory in May, and he had a 78-point lead over Helio Castroneves in the standings after winning the Meijer Indy 300 on Aug. 9 at Kentucky Speedway. It was his third consecutive victory and record-tying sixth win of the season.
But Castroneves and Team Penske never quit. Castroneves won the next race, the PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Grand Prix of Sonoma County on Aug. 24 at Infineon Raceway, while Dixon finished 12th. That 78-point lead suddenly was sliced to 43.
Castroneves then finished a controversial second a week later in the Detroit Indy Grand Prix. Race officials ordered him to surrender the lead to Justin Wilson late in the race for a blocking violation. Still, Castroneves whittled Dixon's lead to 30 points after Dixon finished fifth.
Next was the season-ending PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil 300 on Sept. 7 at Chicagoland Speedway, the third consecutive year the season championship was coming down to 200 laps on the 1.5-mile oval.
Dixon entered the finale needing to finish eighth or better to clinch. Castroneves didn't help himself during qualifying when his four-lap run of 215.372 - good for fourth on the starting grid - was disqualified because he drove under the white line inside the track multiple times, a rules violation. Castroneves was forced to start last in the 28-car field, while Dixon started second in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry.
Castroneves charged to the lead by Lap 78 of the 200-lap race. Dixon had dropped to 10th in the middle section of the race, and the impossible started looking possible for Castroneves. But Dixon charged forward and regained the lead on Lap 186. Dixon and Castroneves were running 1-2, respectively, on the final restart of the race on Lap 194. Castroneves hung on Dixon's rear wing at the white flag, as just .0102 of a second separated them entering the final lap.
The two cars were wheel-to-wheel, screaming down the frontstretch to the finish, with the checkered flag in the air. Castroneves won the race by 12 1/8 inches - a time margin of .0033 of a second - in a finish that needed a five-minute study of timing photographs to determine a winner.
It was the second-closest finish in series history. But it wasn't enough to wrest the title from Dixon, who earned his second championship by 17 points.
What Dixon said: "It was pretty crazy. At one part of the race near the mid-point, I had slipped back to 12th or 13th. It was definitely one we were fighting for to the end. We thought we had won the race and we were in Victory Lane, and then they take the hats off you and Helio's won. We still won the championship, and that's the one we wanted."
Who: Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon
Dario Franchitti was in control after nine of 17 races, with three victories, including the Indianapolis 500. Franchitti held a 65-point lead - more than a one-race gap - over Scott Dixon after winning the SunTrust Indy Challenge on June 30 at Richmond International Raceway.
It appeared Franchitti was on cruise control for his first championship after 12 years at the top level of North American open-wheel racing. But Dixon had other ideas. He won four of the next seven races after Richmond.
Dixon won the Motorola Indy 300 on Aug. 26 at Infineon Raceway to finally catch and replace Franchitti atop the standings, holding a four-point edge. Franchitti regained the top spot by three points by finishing sixth in the penultimate race of the season, the Detroit Indy Grand Prix on Sept. 2. Dixon finished eighth after spinning while battling for the lead late in the race and nearly taking out his championship rival while his stalled car blocked the track.
The final chapter in this thrilling season was set for the PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 on Sept. 9 at Chicagoland Speedway. Sixteen previous races featuring 2,733 laps of competition had come down to one 200-lap duel between Franchitti and Dixon.
Franchitti won the pole in his Andretti Green Racing machine but lost the lead at the green flag. Meanwhile, Dixon had moved up after starting sixth and led 32 laps between Laps 135-190.
Dixon lost the lead to his teammate, Dan Wheldon, on Lap 191 but regained it on Lap 194 when Wheldon slowed on the backstretch. Franchitti's teammate, Danica Patrick, then spun entering pit road on the same lap, triggering the third and final caution period of the race.
In a moment of nearly perfect drama, Dixon and Franchitti lined up one-two on the restart at the end of Lap 197 as the only cars on the lead lap. Franchitti, who had worked the entire race to save fuel, then moved to the high groove to size up Dixon on Lap 198 but could not pass.
Dixon led Franchitti by .0600 of a second at the white flag and needed to stay out front for just 1.5 more miles to claim his second title. Then it happened in Turn 3 - one of the most unexpected moments in series history.
Dixon's car sputtered, running out of fuel. Franchitti roared past for the race victory and his first North American major series championship. Dixon coasted to the line in second, his Honda engine thirsting for just one half-gallon more of ethanol.
The final margin was 13 points.
What Franchitti said: "It was a pretty stressful time. We'd lost some points at Sonoma, and it was going to come down to whoever won the last race between Scott and I. It was Chicago, which was not one of my favorite tracks at the time. I had had some good results there, but I knew I had to win if I was to have a shot. It was all on the line. We were on the pole and the car was very fast, but I went off at the start of the race and the speed wasn't there. The two Target cars and the two Penske cars passed me, and I knew I didn't have the speed on my own to win the race. I had to use the one weapon I owned, and that was fuel-saving. All day, I saved fuel and I saved fuel.
"The last restart, I made a run for it and tried to go to the outside, but I didn't have enough to get it done. I was sizing him up trying to get a draft on the backstretch on that last lap to see what I could make happen. Just when I was thinking about making a move on him, he ran out of fuel. It was incredible. All those laps for the whole year, it came down to the last lap. The last corner."
Who: Sam Hornish Jr., Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon
Helio Castroneves led Team Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr. by one point in the standings after the second-to-last race of the season, the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on Aug. 27 at Infineon Raceway. Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon were third and fourth, respectively, at 422 and 420 points. That set up a four-man, two-team showdown for the championship in the season-ending PEAK Antifreeze 300 on Sept. 10 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Hornish won the Indianapolis 500 in May, but two of his other three victories during the summer came on 1.5-mile ovals like Chicagoland, which was a good omen as he attempted to become the first driver to win three IndyCar Series championships. But Castroneves also had enjoyed success on 1.5-milers, winning at Twin Ring Motegi and Texas among his four wins entering the finale.
So it appeared Team Penske was in good shape for its first IndyCar Series season title since joining the series full time in 2002. Wheldon, however, nearly stole the show in his first season with Ganassi after winning the title in 2005 with Andretti Green Racing.
Wheldon dominated at Chicagoland, leading 166 of 200 laps to edge Dixon by .1897 of a second for the victory. Hornish repressed his instincts to duel with Wheldon and Dixon for victory - reminded on the radio of the championship math of only needing to finish third by team owner Roger Penske - and followed orders precisely, finishing third. Castroneves rallied from an early pit road speed limit penalty to finish fourth, as the title contenders occupied the top four spots in the race. But it wasn't enough for Castroneves.
Hornish and Wheldon finished the season tied at 475 points, but Hornish claimed his record third title on the tie-breaker of four victories to Wheldon's two. Castroneves was third, an agonizing two points short at 473. Dixon was fourth at 460.
What Hornish said: "I wanted to win the race. But I also had to be smart about it. We didn't want something to happen and lose the championship. We knew that Dan could lead all the laps and win the race, and as long as I finished third. Emotionally, you're happy because you won the championship, but you wanted to win the race, too."
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