Helio wins; Power hangs on to title lead
MOTEGI, Japan -- The oval portion of the Izod IndyCar Series championship was decided at Twin Ring Motegi, but American open-wheel racing's overall king will not be crowned until the Oct. 2 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Helio Castroneves scored a dominant win in the Indy Japan 300 over Dario Franchitti, but Will Power's career-best oval finish of third place means the Australian will head to Florida with a 12-point lead in the championship over Franchitti.
Castroneves was at his best in claiming his second career victory on the Japanese oval. He led 153 of the 200 laps and won by 4.57 seconds as Team Penske took three of the top four finishing positions.
"Certainly Team Penske gave me a fantastic car," Castroneves said after passing his former teammate Sam Hornish Jr. to become the career leader in IndyCar-sanctioned laps led. "I give big credit to the guys in the shop and great pit stops.
"Ron Ruzewski, my engineer, gave me an incredible setup this morning, and the entire group on the No. 3 did a hell of a job."
But the most impressive performance on Sunday was turned in by Power.
The championship leader had never finished higher than fifth on an oval, so to land on the podium at a key juncture in the championship was a major accomplishment.
By strongly challenging Franchitti in the closing laps and finishing directly behind the two-time IndyCar Series champion, Power erased doubts about his oval-racing prowess and kept the championship lead.
"I've never finished ahead of Dario Franchitti on an oval, ever," Power remarked. "The only time I have finished ahead of him is when he didn't finish the race at all. So I'm getting closer. I really want to finish ahead of him.
"You know, over the whole season, you have good and bad races, and this was a good race for us -- the best ever on an oval. It's great for the championship, and I'm looking forward to a tough run at Homestead."
Franchitti was especially strong on restarts, and the Scotsman briefly managed to nose ahead of the Penske trio. But ultimately he did not have the speed to challenge Castroneves for the win.
"Helio was in a class of his own," Franchitti admitted. "I was probably the only person that could mix it up with Ryan [Briscoe, who finished fourth] and Helio all day. We were very good on restarts but probably made a small mistake on the downforce level today.
"Will did a good job today. It's all to play for in Homestead."
Franchitti had the consolation of claiming the inaugural A.J. Foyt Trophy for winning the IndyCar Series oval championship. Power already clinched the inaugural Mario Andretti Trophy for winning the road-racing portion of the IndyCar Series championship.
"I'm a bit surprised," Franchitti said. "When I first came over here, I really struggled on the ovals. So that's pretty cool. It's a great accomplishment to share with my team, especially named for A.J. and for Mario Andretti, two great champions to name trophies after.
"Now we've got to get the big one."
Castroneves has won a total of 24 Indy car races under CART and IndyCar sanction but has never won a series title.
Although the charismatic Brazilian has been eliminated from championship contention this year (he moved up to third in the standings with Sunday's victory, 86 points behind Power), he believes his current two-race win streak could be the springboard to a title run in 2011.
"I want to carry this momentum into next year, and I certainly feel that next year is going to be even greater for the team," Castroneves said. "It was great work by the entire team, and having three cars this year has helped us tremendously.
"But we still have a job to be done -- to win this championship for Team Penske."
Team Penske president Tim Cindric, who also serves as Castroneves' race strategist, said the win in Japan was one of his driver's finest triumphs.
"He had a dominant car," Cindric said. "You don't have days like that very often, and we were able to execute in the pits. It was just one of those where as long as you don't make any mistakes, you should win the race.
"That's a lot easier to do than what happened in the last race [at Kentucky Speedway, where Castroneves executed Cindric's fuel-saving strategy to win]. We'd rather win it this way."
It was great work by the entire team, and having three cars this year has helped us tremendously. But we still have a job to be done -- to win this championship for Team Penske.” -- Helio Castroneves
Cindric also praised Power's performance under heavy pressure.
"We're 12 points up, and he controls his destiny now," Cindric said. "Considering he's never been here before, to finish right behind Dario I would say is a success.
"It's certainly a breakthrough, but obviously the real breakthrough would be to win a race. To come here, not having raced here before, and where last year we weren't very strong, we'll take it for now."
Castroneves also complimented Power's drive at Motegi, and Briscoe vowed to do whatever is necessary to ensure that their teammate triumphs over Franchitti for the IndyCar Series championship.
"It's better to have a 12-point advantage than to be 12 behind," Castroneves observed. "He had a great performance today, and it's going to be a great battle. Anything we can make happen to bring this championship to Team Penske, we're going to do.
"He's certainly come along very good on the ovals. Ryan and I, we kind of give him tips. But Will has incredible talent, as we've seen on the road courses. He picks it up fast. We don't need to keep in his ear. He learns very quick, and he's strong out there."
Facing a 12-point deficit, Franchitti knows he has his work cut out for him at Homestead, even though Power has raced there only once.
Driving for KV Racing Technology, the Australian completed only 24 laps in the 2008 Homestead IndyCar race in what was his first oval event.
In both of his previous championships (2007 and '09), Franchitti came from behind to seal the deal in the final race.
"I think he'll get up to speed quickly," Franchitti said. "We just have to make sure we beat him."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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