Franchitti looking to strengthen IndyCar grip at The Glen
Why is Dario Franchitti smiling? He has three wins in the last five races, a whopping 65-point lead in the driver standings, and a much-anticipated date at Watkins Glen International this weekend.
The "Dario Franchitti Championship Cruise" docks at New York's Seneca Lake this weekend for the Camping World Watkins Glen Grand Prix (Sunday, 3:30 p.m., ABC).
Coming off three wins in the last five races, Franchitti packed a 65-point lead in the IndyCar Series championship for the trip to Watkins Glen International, the fastest of the five road-racing venues that now make up almost a third of the 17-race IndyCar schedule.
The 34-year-old Scotsman is trying to downplay talk of the opportunity to win his first major open-wheel championship in his 11th year on the American scene. But in nine years of Indy Racing League sanction, only two drivers who led the point standings at midseason failed to go on to claim the title.
Even in the worst-case scenario, the driver of the No. 27 Canadian Club car out of the Andretti Green Raicng stable will leave The Glen with a 24-point advantage.
Besides, Franchitti ranks as one of the favorites to win Sunday's 60-lap (204-mile) race. Acknowledged as perhaps the best road racer in the IndyCar Series, Dario surprisingly has never won an IRL road race. Nine of his 10 race wins in CART Champ Cars from 1998-2002 came on road or street courses.
"When we were racing over in Champ Car, I was definitely strongest on road and street courses," Franchitti acknowledged. "There are various reasons why we haven't won a road race in the IndyCar Series, and we need to get on with it.
"At Watkins Glen, we need to understand the changing conditions better than we have the last two years and make the car better," he added. "I love driving The Glen, but we maybe haven't totally nailed it in terms of doing my best there. We all need to step up, and we can. A couple of small things will make the difference."
Regarding his chase of the IndyCar crown to go along with his Indianapolis 500 ring, Franchitti refuses to be drawn into discussion.
"It's too early to be thinking about that," he remarked. "I mean, the championship is always in the back of your mind, but I think the best way to achieve success there is just to take it one race at a time, and just do the utmost each week to win each race. And if you can't win it, try to finish second and get the maximum each weekend."
As usual, Franchitti's chief competition will come from the IndyCar Series' two other marquee teams -- Target/Ganassi Racing, Team Penske -- and, of course, from his three Andretti Green Racing teammates.
Ganassi's Scott Dixon won the Watkins Glen race in 2005 and 2006, both years in radically different weather conditions than those expected this weekend. The Glen was cold, wet and miserable in September 2005 and June 2006, but the forecast this weekend calls for sunshine and temperatures around 80 degrees.
Coming off a second-place finish to Franchitti at Richmond International Raceway, Dixon is second to Franchitti in the championship chase, while Dan Wheldon is 72 points out of the series lead in third overall. However, after winning the IRL's first non-oval race at St. Petersburg in 2005, Wheldon historically has tended to struggle at the IndyCar Series' road racing venues.
Last year at WGI, Dixon led only the final nine laps in a race that was decided by pit-stop strategies.
"Obviously I love the place because I've won there twice," Dixon said. "It's very technical, a true driver's track, and if you get every section right, you're rewarded with a good lap time. And the straights are long enough that there are passing opportunities."
Of Team Penske's pair of drivers, Helio Castroneves is the more likely to contend for the victory at Watkins Glen. The Brazilian has claimed pole position both years on the 3.4-mile road course, but a seventh-place finish in 2006 was his best result.
I love driving The Glen, but we maybe haven't totally nailed it in terms of doing my best there. We all need to step up, and we can. A couple of small things will make the difference.
Oval specialist Sam Hornish Jr. is yet to truly feel comfortable on a road course, and a seventh-place finish is also his best effort at The Glen.
Then there are the other AGR drivers. Tony Kanaan should be stout this weekend, and road courses offer Marco Andretti his best shot at redeeming what has generally been a miserable sophomore IndyCar season. Marco was in position to win at The Glen as a rookie before being taken out in a controversial incident with Eddie Cheever.
"I've got a lot of confidence and quite a few laps there, so I'll be smiling all weekend," said Andretti.
"We really need a win to get back where we'd like to be in the championship," added Kanaan, who is tied for third in the standings with Wheldon. "There are still a lot of races left so we need to keep the pressure on Dario and the Ganassi cars."
Scott Sharp scored his first professional race win at The Glen many years ago in the SCCA Trans-Am Series, and Rahal Letterman Racing has shown improved form in recent oval races. Whether that carries over onto Watkins Glen's fast corners and undulations remains to be seen.
Buddy Rice is coming off a pair of top-five short oval finishes for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and hopes to carry that momentum forward.
And A.J. Foyt Racing's Darren Manning could spring the surprise of the weekend; the Englishman ran with the leaders in the only other IRL road race this year at St. Petersburg.
The IndyCar Series' female race-within-a-race is down to two competitiors this weekend because backmarker Milka Duno's 10-event IndyCar program does not include road races. Sarah Fisher has virtually no road racing experience, while Danica Patrick has not been as competitive on road courses as she has been on flat-out oval speedways.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.