Michigan critical to contenders' title hopes

With four races left on the IndyCar schedule, the title race is red-hot. Sam Hornish Jr. has to be the favorite, but there are plenty of drivers to give him a run, writes Rusty Wallace.

Updated: July 28, 2006, 5:50 PM ET
By Rusty Wallace | Special to ESPN.com

The title race is becoming the on-track focus in the IndyCar Series as Sam Hornish Jr. tries to finish off a championship run with four races to go.

Only 32 points separate the top four drivers. Penske's Hornish is in the lead, with teammate Helio Castroneves in third. Ganassi driver Scott Dixon is in second, with teammate and defending champion Dan Wheldon in fourth.

I would have to say that, of the drivers who aren't driving Penske or Ganassi cars, Vitor Meira was the one who had the best shot at making a run until he crashed last week.

I was very surprised to see the day Ganassi's team had, with Wheldon and Dixon finishing eighth and 10th, respectively. I had no idea they would run the way they did last week after being so dominant all year long. Their finishes were a major surprise. Right now, it's still a very open race -- at least a five-car race to the championship with four races to go.

When you look ahead to Michigan, that's a track that plays to Hornish's and Wheldon's strengths because both have been fast at the superspeedways.

Wheldon has been fast at Indianapolis, Chicago and Homestead, as has Hornish. Those two are going to be the cars to watch this week. Michigan is a real smooth racetrack that is all about speed. Other than Indianapolis, this is where the cars will run the fastest.

The drivers started the season with 14 races and are down to four, so everyone is feeling that it is crunch time.

The other team to watch is Andretti Green -- which made plenty of news off the track Tuesday by signing Danica Patrick beginning in 2007 -- because of the extra testing it is getting as a result of having an Indy Pro Series car. That allows the team to get extra test dates, which really helped them last week, and Andretti Green will be the first to tell you that.

The Indy Pro Series is the developmental series for IndyCar. If you have an IRL team and also run a Pro Series car, you can take that driver to an IRL track. If you put the Pro Series driver in your main IndyCar car for at least half of a day's practice, any driver can get in the Pro Series car for the second half of the practice session. It's very advantageous to have a Pro Series team and get that extra testing.

Andretti Green has a Pro Series team, the Klein Tools car, which allowed them to take advantage of extra testing. When Tony Kanaan jumped out of the winning car in Milwaukee on Sunday, there was no doubt the extra testing had helped him win that race.

All the Andretti Green cars outran the Ganassi and Penske cars. Nobody got lucky last week; Andretti Green cars were just flat-out faster. It was refreshing to see more drivers getting involved in the hunt because it was getting pretty tough just talking about Penske and Ganassi every week.

Dario Franchitti has what it takes to win a race, and Marco Andretti, who proved how fast he can drive by what he did at Indianapolis, ran really fast at Milwaukee. The entire Andretti Green stable is quick.

Meira has been fast week in and week out, and I wouldn't put it past him to get the first win of his career at Michigan. It's amazing what he has been doing with what little funding he receives as the lone Panther Racing car. I'm not predicting he will win this week, but he has just as good a shot as anyone because he has been running very fast on the superspeedways.

Danica up to speed

It is very confusing to me to see Patrick outperforming Rahal Letterman teammate Buddy Rice because he is a veteran and pretty smart with the car. I talked to him the morning of the race Sunday.

"The monkey has just got to get off my back," he said. "I've had solid-handling cars and results, and now I'm breaking pieces and having bad-handling cars."

Rice is frustrated and looking for answers.

Danica didn't look good at all at the beginning of the year, but she just woke up the past two races. She has been able to spend more time at home and in the car, and it shows.

Everyone has been in the shop, and the team has turned the corner and finally has that car handling well. There were many times at Milwaukee when I was looking at the lap times and Patrick's lap times were just as fast as Kanaan's. To go out and finish fourth is one thing, but she kept laying down fast laps throughout the race, which tells me she was a threat.

Diamond proves rough

What happened down in Turn 3 at the Milwaukee Mile between Castroneves and Ed Carpenter was very uncharacteristic.

Carpenter went into the corner and took more of a diamond approach; by that, I mean he drove the car straight up, then drove it straight down instead of just driving around the radius of the corner.

Castroneves wasn't anticipating that type of approach by Carpenter, and he was right on Carpenter's right rear. When he went straight, they collided. Carpenter could drive the approach he wanted because he thought he was clear of Castroneves, and Helio didn't think Carpenter was going to do what he did, and it took them both out.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at www.rustywallace.com.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.

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