Midseason analysis: Series title is Franchitti's to lose


The 2007 IndyCar Series season is passing by at a breakneck pace. The series is almost at the halfway point of a hectic set of seven races in seven weeks, led by this weekend's Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville Superspeedway (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Nashville is Dario Franchitti's adopted American home, and as the IndyCar Series championship leader, the 34-year-old Scotsman is likely to get a hero's welcome at his "home" track. The 1.25-mile concrete oval has generally been good to Franchitti; he won the 2005 Nashville event, and a sixth-place run last year was one of his better results during what was generally a lost season.

But Scott Dixon, who is Franchitti's closest pursuer in the IndyCar Series championship chase, matches those statistics. And while Franchitti's only other start at Nashville resulted in a DNF and a 20th-place finish, Dixon's record includes a second-place result during his 2003 championship season, and his worst run in Tennessee resulted in eighth place. Team Penske colleagues Helio Castroneves (five starts with an average finish of fifth) and Sam Hornish Jr. (six Nashville starts with an average finish of 6.3) also beat Franchitti's record there.

With a 47-point cushion over Dixon heading into the Nashville weekend, the question now is whether Franchitti can maintain his series lead over the final seven races of the season to claim his first major open-wheel championship. So we did a bit of research (yes, more than consulting a Magic 8-Ball) and tried to calculate who might emerge as the 2007 IndyCar Series champion.

The outlook certainly looks good for Dario. Three of the remaining seven races are on road or street courses, and he has scored victories at both Nashville and Detroit's Belle Isle street course -- the latter during his six-year Champ Car career.

The fact that the IndyCar Series has a limited 18- or 19-car field also works in Franchitti's favor because of the way the points system works. Even if he finishes last in a race, Franchitti will still receive 12 points. Since a race win is worth 50 points and a maximum of three bonus points is available (for leading the most laps in any given race), the most Dixon or any other driver can make up each weekend is 41 points.

Armed with a calculator and a rainbow array of Sharpie markers, we took the top six contenders in the IndyCar championship and determined their average finish at each of the remaining seven tracks. We then converted those finishes into championship points using the IndyCar Series' scoring system.

For Mid-Ohio and Belle Isle, we used results from Champ Car races at those tracks and assigned a 10th-place average finish to those drivers who never raced there in CART (i.e., Hornish and Dan Wheldon).

If a driver scored a victory at one of the upcoming tracks, we awarded him a 10-point bonus, consistent with the IndyCar scoring system.

After crunching the numbers, it is our fearless prediction that Franchitti will emerge as the 2007 IndyCar Series champion, 36 points ahead of Dixon. Maybe not the most exciting championship finish, but the battle for second should be a dandy, with Sam Hornish Jr. and Tony Kanaan both coming close to Dixon's projected points tally.

Here's how we see the rest of the season unfolding:

" NASHVILLE -- As mentioned above, Franchitti and Dixon are former Nashville winners, as is Kanaan. Hornish boasts a pair of seconds in six starts, while Castroneves is almost as consistent on the concrete as Dixon, with four top-5s and no result worse than ninth. On an average finish of 4.25, Dixon rates as the favorite ahead of Castroneves, Hornish and Franchitti.

Projected postrace points:
1. Franchitti 426;
2. Dixon 389;
3. Kanaan 349;
4. Wheldon 333;
5. Hornish 325;
6. Castroneves 287.

" MID-OHIO -- Franchitti earned a CART pole at Mid-Ohio but logged only one finish better than 11th place (a third in 1999) in five starts. Castroneves is the master of this twisty road course, with back-to-back Champ Car wins in 2000 and '01; the 20 bonus points he earns in our fantasy championship puts him back within reach of the others in the top six. Kanaan and Dixon both earned a single top-5 each in their Champ Car days.

Projected postrace points:
1. Franchitti 440;
2. Dixon 411;
3. Kanaan 366;
4. Wheldon 353;
5. Hornish 345;
6. Castroneves 333.

" MICHIGAN -- Franchitti posted three top-5s, including two podiums, while in Champ Car at Michigan Speedway, but he hasn't finished better than eighth in three IndyCar Series starts. Castroneves is the defending champion, while Kanaan scored his first and only Champ Car win in lucky fashion at the 2.0-mile superspeedway in 1999. Wheldon and Hornish have the best finishing record (7.0 and 7.4, respectively). Both would be a lot higher, but a DNF drags down their average. Still, that duo should make up ground in the Irish Hills.

Projected postrace points:
1. Franchitti 457;
2. Dixon 430;
3. Kanaan 396;
4. Wheldon 379;
5. Hornish 371;
6. Castroneves 361.

" KENTUCKY -- Again, Hornish and Kanaan should dominate, as they did at last year's race. Hornish picks up 20 bonus points here for a pair of wins, while Wheldon has never finished lower than eighth in four Bluegrass State starts. Castroneves and Kanaan are generally top-5 runners, while Dixon boasts a pair of seconds offset by a 13th and a 23rd. This may be collectively the best opportunity to gain ground on Franchitti, who has never finished better than sixth on the bumpy 1.5-mile oval.

Projected postrace points:
1. Franchitti 476;
2. Dixon 450;
3. Kanaan 418;
4. Hornish 421;
5. Wheldon 411;
6. Castroneves 389.

" INFINEON -- Kanaan grabs 10 bonus points here thanks to his victory in 2005, but Castroneves and Dixon are the favorites -- but Helio desperately needs to finish. Franchitti was second in 2006 and eighth the year before, so he actually boasts the best finishing record. Dixon is the IndyCar Series' most consistent road racer, but this road-racing event and Belle Isle could put an end to Hornish and Wheldon's championship hopes.

Projected postrace points:
1. Franchitti 506;
2. Dixon 478;
3. Kanaan 456;
4. Hornish 438;
5. Wheldon 429;
6. Castroneves 406.

" BELLE ISLE -- Castroneves originated his trademark fence-climb with his first CART win here in 2000, and he repeated in '01, so give the excitable Brazilian 20 bonus points. Franchitti is a former Detroit winner as well, so he will actually clinch our fantasy championship a race early. Kanaan has struggled here, withdrawing twice after practice crashes, but he is still likely to fare better than Wheldon and Hornish on a technical street course.

Projected postrace points:
1. Franchitti 546;
2. Dixon 500;
3. Kanaan 482;
4. Wheldon 458;
5. Castroneves 456;
6. Hornish 448.

" CHICAGOLAND -- With the championship in the bag, Franchitti can afford to miss the Chicagoland race, which he did in 2006 after sustaining a concussion in a historic car race at Goodwood, England. But he'll show up anyway to claim the championship hardware. Hornish and Wheldon are both two-time winners at the Joliet superspeedway, almost lifting them to third in our projected standings, but Kanaan's consistency (no finish worse than seventh in four starts) helps him maintain the position.

Projected final championship points:
1. Franchitti 560;
2. Dixon 526;
3. Kanaan 512;
4. Wheldon 510;
5. Hornish 503;
6. Castroneves 480.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.