Franchitti's luck beginning to turn?
WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- Dario Franchitti's title hopes were raised with a victory last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, as if the Scotsman needed additional reason to look forward to Sunday's ABC Supply Co./ A.J. Foyt 225 at the Milwaukee Mile.
Franchitti dominated last year's IndyCar Series event at Milwaukee to claim his first career victory in the series, and he'll need another similar result Sunday if he wants to extend the championship battle with his Andretti Green Racing teammates Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan into October.
Franchitti's first win of 2005 came at his adopted American hometown track and it couldn't have come a moment too soon. It vaulted him up to third in the IndyCar championship standings, albeit still 78 points behind Wheldon, a four-time winner this year.
"We've had the fastest car almost every weekend this year but something always seemed to keep us from capitalizing on it," said Franchitti, whose campaign got off to a bad start with a DNF only 12 laps into the season opener. "We've had the car to win five races or more. We just need to keep closing the deal."
"Dario had the toughest luck of everybody I think on the team this year," added team owner Michael Andretti. "I think he's been doing the best job in terms of setting his car up and racing, but he's just always had a problem getting to the checkered flag without problems. Hopefully now that he's broken the ice and he'll get on a roll."
The Milwaukee Mile is a track that will definitely play to Franchitti's skill set. The lack of banking means outright speeds aren't as fast as Phoenix or Richmond, making it more of a handling track that requires teams and drivers to work hard to achieve a balanced race car.
"I love the challenge of the short tracks," Franchitti remarked. "We get along a lot better than we do with the big tracks. We just have a better understanding of the car and what we have to do to it."
The remaining eight races on the IndyCar Series calendar provide an interesting mix of tracks that should prevent Wheldon or anyone else from running away with the title. Aside from Milwaukee, there is one other short oval (Pikes Peak Int'l Raceway, Aug. 21) and two road races (Infineon Raceway Aug. 29 and Watkins Glen Int'l, Sept. 25). The remaining races are on fast 1.5- or 2-mile ovals that can turn into a crapshoot.
With such a comfortable championship lead, Wheldon could afford to cruise around and aim for top-five finishes every week. But after suffering his first DNF of the season last week at Nashville, the Englishman knows he can't afford another. He led the first practice session at Milwaukee with a 165.605 mph lap.
"We're working on getting the car quicker, but right now we're finding the track very slippery," Wheldon reported.
It might get even slicker; Friday's temperatures in the mid-80s could rise by 10 degrees or more for race day, making 225 laps a physical battle.
Helio Castroneves, who along with Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish Jr. is considered the only realistic championship threat to the Andretti Green trio atop the standings, was fastest overall on Friday with a 166.293-mph lap in the afternoon session.
"We struggled this morning and seemed to struggle a little bit this afternoon, but suddenly we found some stuff that was wrong with the car," stated the Brazilian, whose performance in Carl Hogan's Lola in the 1999 Champ Car race at Milwaukee caught the eye of his current team owner, Roger Penske.
Another Milwaukee specialist is Patrick Carpentier, who set the outright Milwaukee track record of 185.500 mph in a Champ Car in 1997. This is Carpentier's first Milwaukee appearance in the IndyCar Series and he managed the seventh quickest Friday lap at 162.237 mph.
Just ahead of Carpentier on the timesheets was Danica Patrick at163.385 mph. Milwaukee was the only oval track that Patrick raced on prior to joining the IndyCar Series and she was happy to put her Toyota Atlantic Championship experience to use (she finished sixth at Milwaukee in 2003 and fourth in 2004). In fact, she was the quickest of Rahal Letterman Racing's three drivers on Friday.
"I don't know if we can win the pole, but at least we will be in the hunt, which is amazing considering how far we were off a few weeks ago in Richmond," she said. "It's a good sign that we are making progress as a team on the short ovals because that has been our weakness this season."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.