Story lines, drama abound at Michigan race

Updated: July 28, 2006, 5:40 PM ET
By K. Lee Davis | ESPN.com

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The IndyCar Series standings aren't just tight heading into Sunday's Firestone Indy 400 (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) -- one wheel in the wrong place could kill the chances for any of four drivers with a realistic shot at taking home the title after the Sept. 10 race at Chicagoland.

Michigan International Speedway -- the second-longest and likely second-fastest track on the schedule -- offers special challenges and opportunities. Here are my 10 reasons to watch this race.

  • 1. Danica Patrick could win this race -- Michigan's two-mile tri-oval fits Patrick's skills perfectly.

    Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick
    AP Photo/John RussellDan and Danica. Loads of talent, plenty of expectations. So far only Wheldon has won a race -- and a title.

    She burst on the scene by finishing fourth at the 2005 Indy 500 and was solid again this year, finishing eighth in a car that had lost its horsepower advantage and handled like a pig. At 2.5 miles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the longest track on the schedule, and she's proven before she likes the longer venues. Her Rahal Letterman team seems to be getting a handle on the Dallara chassis after switching from the Panoz chassis they ran unsuccessfully at Indy this year. She's moving to the Andretti Green Racing team next season, but you can rest assured she'd like to get that never-won-a-race monkey off her back as soon as possible.

  • 2. These guys (and girl) are good -- Some of the best drivers in North America are not off this weekend. While NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series takes a deserved break from a grueling schedule, the IndyCar Series is racing for the third week in a row. It's the perfect opportunity for NASCAR diehards to see how fast these cars can be and how quickly the lead can change. If you turn off the TV unimpressed, then you just aren't going to be a fan.

  • 3. There's a tight race for the title -- Only 32 points separates series leader Sam Hornish Jr. from defending champion Dan Wheldon in fourth place. In between, Wheldon's Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon and Hornish's Penske teammate Helio Castroneves are looking for any slip. That's four former series champions vying for another title, with former champ Tony Kanaan, the winner of last week's race in Milwaukee, sitting in sixth.

  • 4. This bunch has personality -- Like NASCAR, there are some funny Southern accents on the paddock. Only these are from South America (Kanaan, Castroneves, Vitor Meira), South Africa (Tomas Scheckter) or southern England (Wheldon). Hey, there's even a guy with an Italian name and a Scottish accent (Dario Franchitti) and he's married to movie star Ashley Judd, who is as Southern as it gets. And every one of them has a great sense of humor. Have we mentioned Danica?

  • 5. Marco Andretti could win this race -- Like Patrick the year before, the 19-year-old became a star with an impressive showing at this year's Indianapolis 500. Only he didn't finish a distant fourth, he missed winning by about 25 feet as Sam Hornish Jr. clipped him at the end. He isn't just the rookie of the year, he is one of the tent poles bolstering the series.

  • 6. Speeds will be dazzling -- The IndyCar Series has been racing here since 2002, and pole speeds have been somewhere between 216 and 222 mph. Kasey Kahne's qualifying speed for the pole at June's 3M Performance 400 Cup race on this track? 186.691 mph. At that rate, the Indy car would have Kahne down at least 15 laps after the first hour of racing.

  • 7. Rubbin' isn't racin', it's wreckin' -- And yet these drivers will duel inches apart all over the track, lap after lap. Open-wheel cars do touch and the drivers live to tell the tale, but trading rubber -- much less paint -- probably means the end of the race for both cars.

  • 8. Vitor Meira could win this race -- No, he doesn't have the name recognition of Danica Patrick or, for that matter, a handful of other top drivers. But Meira is IndyCar's Phil Mickelson, or at least Mickelson before he won a golf major. Meira has a slew of second-place finishes. He has been competitive this year despite running a car without a primary sponsor for much of it. His winless streak is at 56 starts and counting

  • 9. Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta could be racing to keep their jobs -- Will Andretti Green Racing be a five-car operation in 2007? There is little reason to believe, in the IndyCar Series' tight sponsorship market, that even Patrick and team boss Michael Andretti have enough star power to keep five cars afloat. The real question is whether the team will keep four cars on the track next year. Neither Franchitti nor Herta has produced much in the way of results this year. Marco Andretti, Kanaan and Patrick are givens for next season. If it's a three-car team for AGR in '07, this is the beginning of Franchitti's and Herta's auditions for other teams, or even another race series.

  • 10. Open-wheel racing used to be king, and it could be again -- And you can say you were there when the big turnaround started.

K. Lee Davis is the motorsports editor at ESPN.com.

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