Another classic IndyCar title fight
They got there by radically different paths, but Will Power and Dario Franchitti separated themselves from the field and are the last men standing in contention for the Izod IndyCar Series championship.
Power was peerless in clinching the Mario Andretti Trophy for road racing. In his first full season driving for Team Penske, the 29-year-old Australian started the nine road or street course events from pole position, won five races and never finished lower than fourth.
Meanwhile, Franchitti, 37, was the runaway winner of the A.J. Foyt Trophy for oval racing with two wins (including the Indianapolis 500) and six top-5s in seven starts.
But there was also an 18th-place finish at Iowa Speedway, and that rare "DNF-mechanical" due to a gearbox failure is the chief reason Franchitti is 12 points behind Power heading into the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 set for Saturday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It's the fifth year in a row that the IndyCar championship battle has been taken to the final race, and in the past four, the champion wasn't decided until the final lap.
Last year at Homestead, in the first IndyCar championship finale hosted at the Florida track, Franchitti and Target Chip Ganassi Racing committed early to a fuel-saving strategy. When the race stayed green to its completion, Franchitti completed the distance on one fewer fuel stop than championship rivals Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon.
Franchitti has been in come-from-behind situations before; both of his IndyCar Series championships were won from a final-race deficit -- three points in 2007 and five points in 2009.
Power looked like a deer in headlights in the lead-up to the most recent IndyCar race, at Motegi, Japan. But he calmed his nerves somewhat with his best career performance to date on an oval, a third-place finish right on Franchitti's gearbox.
Both drivers have races they wish they could take back. Aside from his DNF at Iowa, Franchitti was a surprisingly uncompetitive 12th at Long Beach and later learned he drove the race with a broken bone in his hand.
Power's disaster came at Chicagoland Speedway, where he led 17 laps but finished 16th after an unscheduled late pit stop for fuel. He also rued simply being too conservative on the way to 12th place at Kansas Speedway in the opening oval race of the year.
Unless he takes first place at Homestead, Power would be the first series champion under IndyCar sanction to win the crown without winning an oval race. But if Power's entire season is taken on balance, ignoring the types of races he won, he would be a worthy champion.
Even if Franchitti wins his fourth race of the season at Homestead, Power's five wins would lead the series. He's led a series-high 460 laps during 2010, with Franchitti second on 424.
The fact that the final race will be staged on an oval has some drivers convinced Franchitti has an advantage. This will be Power's 20th oval race; Franchitti has competed on ovals since 1997 and admits that he struggled for the first couple of years. In fact, he didn't win on an oval track until 2002.
"I still think Dario's going to do it," Danica Patrick offered. "He's got the experience and the confidence on the ovals, versus Will. I think if it was a road course for the last race, I'd pick Will. They're both phenomenal road-course drivers, but Dario's got the experience on ovals.
"I'm sure Will knows his strong suit is the road courses and his experience is probably what holds him back on the ovals at this point."
Power showed enough speed to contend for the win in the past three IndyCar oval races. But as Franchitti found early in his career, it takes a lot of things coming together perfectly to win an oval race.
Dixon, who is now Franchitti's teammate at Ganassi Racing, was quick to defend Power's perceived lack of performance on ovals.
"People say he's been choking, but the way I look at it, he's been doing a fantastic job -- the team choked," Dixon said. "That's their deal, not his. He's done a hell of a job.
"I think experience helps in some ways and not in others. It always helps if you've been in that situation before, but to define whether it's going to make or break you, not really."
What could swing the pendulum back in Power's favor -- aside from the 12-point advantage he takes into the race -- is having an additional teammate.
We want to bring this championship to the team. We need to do everything we can. Our goal is to not have the red-and-white [Ganassi] cars finish in front of Will.” -- Helio Castroneves
Even if Power doesn't win the race, if teammates Briscoe and Helio Castroneves run up front, they will take points away from Franchitti and make Power's task easier.
"We want to bring this championship to the team," said Castroneves, who takes a two-race win streak into Homestead. "We need to do everything we can. Our goal is to not have the red-and-white [Ganassi] cars finish in front of Will."
"We'll certainly be working together, and the most important thing we can do is try and keep Franchitti out of Victory Lane," Briscoe said. "If that's me winning or Helio winning, I don't think that matters. Will's got to run a good race and be strong and race to win and stay ahead of Dario."
Briscoe said he's not expecting to be asked to move aside for Power.
"That's not the way we play the game," Briscoe said. "It's not just pulling over and letting guys by. It's more than that.
"But I've already told Will that he's got my backing, and I'm going to be helping him out for this championship."
Dixon is likewise prepared to play a support role for Franchitti if necessary.
"I'm just going to race my own race," Dixon said. "If I can stay close to the front, that's obviously what I want to do. If it's a race between me and Dario, to benefit him, I obviously will. But as far as getting involved with another competitor, I'm just going to race them as normal."
In Japan, Castroneves had an obviously dominant car, but Franchitti was good enough to run second. More importantly, Power was able to run with Franchitti to take third place.
If Power can repeat that performance at Homestead, he'll walk away as IndyCar Series champion.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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