Three championship contenders square off on three ovals
Scott Dixon kicked off defense of his IndyCar Series title with 16th- and 15th-place finishes, but righted the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car for a string of 11 top 10s - including four victories that boosted him to the IndyCar Series career record - and into championship contention again.
In fact, he entered the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway on Aug. 23 atop the standings. He exited the 2.303-mile, 12-turn course in third - 20 points behind Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe and 16 shy of teammate Dario Franchitti. While his 13th-place result isn't going to be a title-breaker, opportunities to get a leg up on the strong competition are dwindling.
Three contenders, three oval races. On the docket are Chicagoland Speedway, Twin Ring Motegi and Homestead-Miami Speedway - whose only common characteristic lies in that they're measured at 1.5 miles.
"I'm happy to not lead now as long as we can lead at (the Oct. 10 season finale at) Homestead," said Dixon, who's been the runner-up the past two years at Chicagoland Speedway - where he's fallen short and clinched the driver championship. "We have a great run coming up with the three tracks at the finish. We won (at Homestead-Miami Speedway) last year and finished second at the others. If we can run like that we should be looking good. But it's a tough day when you have such a bad one and your competitors have such a good one.
"Hopefully, we'll take this as our bad weekend and just move on and get a good result on our next three."
It's the third time since 2001 that the differential between first and third is 20 points or less with three races remaining. Franchitti's wire-to-wire victory at Infineon Raceway (only the second in IndyCar Series history) and Briscoe's seventh runner-up finish of the season (one off Helio Castroneves' year-old series record) provided the 13th different points leader in the 14 races.
"I've never heard of anything like it before. Hopefully, I can change that now," said Briscoe, who's the only driver to lead after consecutive races.
Briscoe's top-five consistency though needs a Victory Circle visit to put some distance between his challengers. He attempted to overtake Franchitti multiple times after a restart with four laps left in the 75-lap race to do just that, but was blunted.
"If we're going to win the championship, I'm going to have to win one of these last three," Briscoe said. "We just have to keep getting these points. Coming in second gets a little old after awhile, but we'll win one of these someday."
Franchitti, who tied Castroneves, Tony Bettenhausen and Emerson Fittipaldi for 16th on the all-time Indy car racing victory list with 22 (12 in the IndyCar Series), held off Dixon on the final lap at Chicagoland in '07 to clinch the series title. He expects another race that will go down to the finish - under the lights at Chicagoland and right through to the late-afternoon speedfest at Homestead-Miami.
"It's just so competitive that you can't afford mistakes," Franchitti said. "We've all made them this year. Actually, we've all had bad luck as well. When you get the chance, you got to score the points."