With four to go, points race is too close to call:
Many counted out Helio Castroneves in the 2008 IndyCar Series championship race when the Team Penske driver lost the lead and certain victory on the final lap at Kentucky Speedway to drop 78 points behind Scott Dixon. They just didn't mention it in his company.
|Graphic showing IndyCar points battle|
Castroneves, an eternal optimist, also is a ceaseless competitor. In the next two races, he charged to victory at Infineon Raceway to slice the deficit to 43 points and was the runner-up at Belle Isle to preserve his title aspirations at 30 points back. In the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway, Castroneves' all-or-nothing attitude injected heightened suspense and excitement as he roared from the rear of the 28-car field to beat Dixon to the checkered flag by 0.0033 of a second - the second-closest margin of victory in series history.
Castroneves' championship run was tethered to his race result on the 1.5-mile oval - and the finishing order - with the differential after 17 rounds a scant 17 points.
"It was a big task, but we believed and did everything possible," he said.
Another exciting scenario is playing out this season.
With four races remaining, Dixon is in front again but only by three points over Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe. Dario Franchitti, who bested Dixon for the 2007 series championship on the final lap of the final race, is 20 points back to highlight the third-closest 1-3 battle since 2001. The 1-2 gap is the closest over the same number of seasons.
The Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on Aug. 23 isn't likely to break the logjam as all three - plus Castroneves and Danica Patrick as wild cards in the top five - are experienced and formidable road racers. Events at Chicagoland Speedway and Twin Ring Motegi potentially could create some separation, but all the contenders are pointing to the title being decided for the fourth consecutive year - and 10th in the 14 years of the Indy Racing League -- in the finale Oct. 10.
That plugs in the spotlight to shine on Homestead-Miami Speedway and its variably-banked 1.5-mile oval that's so familiar to the competitors - having tested there in March and the series making an annual pilgrimage there since 2001.
"I figured it was going to go down to the wire from the first race," said Franchitti, who returned to the IndyCar Series this season to team with Dixon at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. "You have to expect that. I didn't know whether I'd be part of that fight."
He brings three victories and nine top-five finishes into the fray at Infineon, where he earned the pole in 2007 and has finished second and third in his past two races. Dixon won that '07 race and started from the pole in '06, while Briscoe followed Castroneves across the finish line last year in second and won the pole in the inaugural event in 2005.
"I like the next four tracks we're going to; it's going to be exciting," said Briscoe, who has paired two victories with a half-dozen runner-up finishes to join the title chase for the first time.
Dixon lost some footing last year with a 12th-place finish at Infineon last year - with the New Zealander pointing to looking at the year-end prize in lieu of fastidious race preparation as the culprit.
"With the championship, nobody wants to lead it. It's going to come down to the wire," he said, wiser this time around. "Penske definitely isn't going to let up. Dario isn't going to let up either."
Only six days after competing at the physically demanding Infineon Raceway, the chase switches to the always-entertaining 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway oval - where there's only 60 minutes of practice before four-lap qualifications and 30 minutes afterward. Briscoe started from the pole last September and got a close-up view of the Castroneves-Dixon finish in third place. Dixon has four top-five finishes in six races, while Franchitti won from the pole in '07.
Dixon has three front-row starts and an equal number of top-five finishes in six trips to Twin Ring Motegi, whose traditional spring date was swapped for Sept. 19. Franchitti has a best of third in four races, and Briscoe advanced six positions to finish ninth in 2008.
"The great thing about what we're doing is the people that have an opportunity to win the championship at this point are all quality people," Target Chip Ganassi managing director Mike Hull said. "You know when you race with them it'll work out fine. It'll be good."
Through the 13 races, the points lead has changed hands a series-record 12 times. The only time that matters, of course, is when one of the drivers hoists the IndyCar Series cup in Victory Circle.
"I don't really care for leading the championship now," Dixon said. "If you can get a runaway now and start building some points on those guys, that's going to be important. But the lead has been changing a ton between the three or four of us. I can see that happening all down to the wire."
Flying under the radar would suit Dixon heading into the Firestone Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he's posted two victories and two other top-five finishes in six races (all in the season opener). Now the track switches to being the crowning event, and will continue in October 2010.
"The competition IndyCar has produced on the track in recent years is unquestionably among the best ever in motorsports," Homestead-Miami Speedway president Curtis Gray said. "South Florida is the only place in America to annually host the championship of any major sport in consecutive years -- including the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup Finals, NBA Finals and World Series. This is another remarkable day for all of South Florida.
"To have the IndyCar Series crown champions in Miami back-to-back years is a testament to the position South Florida has claimed on the motorsports landscape. The IndyCar Series drivers, team owners and officials clearly appreciate the competition, fan support and overall championship aura they experience when they come to Homestead-Miami Speedway."
2. Fisher surprised by gift from sponsor: A crowd of extended family and gathered to see Sarah Fisher's reaction when the blindfold was lifted and she saw the gray car with a red bow in the garage.
"Oh, my gosh!" was what they expected and received.
The car, an unpainted 2009 Dallara chassis lacking many of the details that distinguish it as a race car l brought the IndyCar Series team owner/driver to tears.
"That is so awesome. I got a new car," Fisher said. "I felt like I was on the 'Price is Right.' Imagine what we'll do now."
The first order of business is to prepare the chassis in oval configuration for the Firestone Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 10. Fisher also will compete in the PEAK Motor Oil & Antifreeze Indy 300 on Aug. 29 at Chicagoland Speedway in the team's seven-year-old car.
"I actually thought I was coming today to shoot a Dollar General commercial," said Fisher, who drives the No. 67 Dollar General entry. "To have a spare car, it means we can be more aggressive and be able to put it on the line even more. It will make a huge difference in our racing efforts.
"Maybe there's an option now to have a second car at Indy once the first car is in solid, and it makes a huge difference in preparation. We'll be able to have a better shot at doing some road course events or some short oval events. We're building, we have some really great people and we're lucky."
The chassis, estimated at $300,000, was provided by Hartman Oil, a sponsor of the second-year team since May 2008. It was while Willis E. "Wink" Hartman was watching ESPN's "SportsCenter" that he first learned of Fisher and the fact that the team's primary sponsor for its first race had pulled out.
"I didn't really at the time think much about it," Hartman said. "It was one of those things that the next morning I was sitting out on the patio and I kept thinking about Sarah Fisher and somebody backing out on her. I didn't know her, but something told me somebody needed to help her."
Hartman did, and he and his wife, Libba, have become part of Sarah Fisher Racing's extended family.
Hartman Oil Co., founded in 1920, is an independent oil and natural gas company involved in the development, acquisition and operation of oil and gas properties in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma. It also operates drilling rigs, a service company and a trucking division.