Franchitti, Dixon turning IndyCar Series into two-man race
Scott Dixon is red-hot with three straight IndyCar wins, but he still trails Dario Franchitti in the driver standings. Can Dixon make it four in a row at Michigan -- and finally reel in Dario?
Updated: August 3, 2007, 5:03 PM ETBy John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com
The IndyCar Series field expands back to 20 cars for this weekend's Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway (Sunday, noon ET, ESPN2). But most of the attention is likely to be focused on just two of those Dallara-Hondas -- the ones driven by Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. In terms of the overall series championship, Franchitti and Dixon have separated themselves from the rest of the IndyCar field. Franchitti, the senior member of Andretti Green Racing, heads to Michigan's Irish Hills with a 24-point lead over his Target/Ganassi Racing counterpart.
We're doing as much as we possibly can and are applying as much pressure as possible. We're closing the gap, and if we keep going at that rate, it's going to be good.
Indeed, due to attrition and accidents, the Michigan race has often been a wild-card event, dating back through the CART and USAC eras. ESPN Indy Racing League analyst Scott Goodyear's only CART wins were at MIS in 1992 and '94, the latter during a race in which only eight of 28 cars running at the finish. Franchitti hopes that the MIS hex doesn't fall on his shoulders this weekend as he struggles to maintain the championship lead. Top-three finishes for Dario in the last three IndyCar events (on the Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio road courses and the Nashville oval) haven't been enough to stop Dixon's onslaught on his points lead. Then again, three consecutive race wins will do that.
For all practical purposes, they are the only two contenders for the series crown; with five races left in 2007, no other driver is within 111 points of the 474-point tally Franchitti accumulated over the first dozen races of the season. Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Sam Hornish Jr. are fighting for third place in the standings, with Helio Castroneves and Danica Patrick still in contention for the bronze medal. In the past three races, Dixon trimmed Franchitti's championship lead by nearly two-thirds, from 65 to 24 points. But that duo can't claim a particularly distinguished record at Michigan, where Wheldon and Hornish are the favorites to win. Neither of those drivers has won at the 2.0-mile, egg-shaped superspeedway 80 miles west of Detroit, but Wheldon has finished in the top three in each of the last three years. Hornish finished in the top seven in four of his five Michigan starts, with a front-row qualifying effort in 2006, which was negated by a rare DNF. Franchitti, meanwhile, has never finished better than eighth in three IRL starts at Michigan (though he did post podium finishes in his last three Champ Car races at the track). Dixon finished second at Michigan during his 2003 IndyCar championship season, but the New Zealander failed to finish his last two starts at MIS. "We're doing as much as we possibly can and are applying as much pressure as possible," Dixon said. "We're closing the gap, and if we keep going at that rate, it's going to be good. "But Michigan's never been a favorite of mine -- it's a tough race. You get a lot of people that come up with good cars and can factor in there. I think we will have fast cars, but we just need to make it a clean race."
"We have been very consistent over the last three races, but it's really important for us to get the Canadian Club car back to Victory Lane," Franchitti said. "After the week off, I am looking forward to getting back in the car and Michigan is a track that I have a lot of experience at." Three of the five IRL races at the track featured unlikely winners -- Tomas Scheckter in 2002, Alex Barron in 2003, and Bryan Herta in 2005. Team Penske's Helio Castroneves is the defending race champion. Last year, the time it took Castroneves to complete the 400 miles at Michigan was less than the three-hour rain delay prior to the event's start. But, other than the expected stifling heat and humidity, inclement weather won't be a factor this year. Here are some other story lines to watch this weekend: •Danica's day? -- Even if she isn't qualifying like she did during her three-pole rookie IndyCar campaign, Danica Patrick has shown improved form in races this year. The payoff has been a pair of career-best third-place finishes at Texas and Nashville, and Michigan's flat-out nature plays to her strengths. With that in mind, as well as the track's history of surprising results, MIS is arguably the most likely track left this year at which she could get her first IndyCar win. •Rahal resurgence -- Perhaps the most impressive performance at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago was Ryan Hunter-Reay's drive to seventh place for Rahal Letterman Racing. In his first IndyCar Series start, he outperformed veteran teammate Scott Sharp, who in turn has helped RLR raise its game after a dismal 2006 campaign with Patrick and Buddy Rice. That came despite a frightening warm-up crash caused by a stuck throttle on the No. 17 Ethanol Council Dallara-Honda on the morning of the race. • Rice cookin'? -- Buddy Rice made his IRL debut at Michigan in 2002 (a second-place finish for Cheever Racing), and he claimed one of his three IndyCar Series race wins at MIS in 2004, his breakout season for Rahal Letterman Racing. Since then, it's been mostly a tough slog for the Phoenix native, but Michigan is a likely place for him and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing to break into the top five. • Field Fillers -- The two entries bumping the IndyCar field back up to 20 cars will be driven by Jon Herb and Milka Duno. It might be Duno's last chance in the series; after crashing half a dozen times during her limited 2007 campaign for SAMAX Racing, she is reportedly in jeopardy of losing her IRL competition license. The Venezuelan female says her confidence is up because, for the first time, she will have a spare car to fall back on. Still her dubious record to date indicates that she'll probably need it before the weekend is completed.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.