Dario Franchitti wins pole at Homestead

Updated: October 1, 2010, 7:32 PM ET
Associated Press

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The racer in Will Power would love nothing more than to clinch the IndyCar championship by outdueling Dario Franchitti in the final lap of Saturday night's Indy 300 -- one last mad dash in a season full of them.

The pragmatist in the 29-year-old Australian would prefer something a little more boring.

"Sitting here, all you want is it just to be an easy race," Power said with a sheepish shrug. "That's human nature. There's no way I want it to be a tough battle, but obviously it would just feel so much better if it was and you won."

Good thing. Because that's precisely what he's going to get.

Franchitti moved within 11 points of Power on Friday after taking the pole for the 200-lap race by posting a qualifying speed of 213.187 mph. The margin is the closest any driver has been to Power since June and makes the math on what it will take for Franchitti to win the title pretty easy.

If the 37-year-old Scot leads the most laps and takes the checkered flag, he'll win a third championship no matter what Power does starting from the third spot.

Franchitti It's going to be, what do they say, a barnburner.

-- Dario Franchitti

"It's going to be, what do they say, a barnburner," Franchitti said.

It usually is during IndyCar's final race.

This is the fifth straight season the points race has come down to the final event. Last year Franchitti successfully gambled on pit strategy to leapfrog Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe for the title.

The ability to come through when it matters has made Franchitti the favorite in the garage. Danica Patrick called it a month ago. Tony Kanaan, a good friend of Franchitti's, has hopped on board.

"Will's a pro but Dario's an old pro," Kanaan said. "The guy has been in that position three more times at least than Power. (Power) is going to have it hard."

Which is fine by Power. He knows in some ways he's not even supposed to be here.

His career nearly ended during a horrific crash in Sonoma last summer. He spent time in the hospital, his back a jumbled mess. At his bedside Roger Penske made a promise to find enough sponsorship to give Power a full-time ride provided he made a full recovery.

The Captain delivered. And so has his latest star.

Dominating the road courses like no driver in recent memory, Power has been atop the standings virtually all season, winning five times en route to becoming IndyCar's king of the road. He's also proven to be an increasingly tough out on the ovals, protecting his points lead by finishing third in Japan two weeks ago.

It's been a remarkable season for Power. All of it won't matter a lick if Franchitti is the one dancing in confetti at night's end.

"I'll be very disappointed, but it happens," he said. "Somebody has to finish second."

He's just not planning on being that somebody, even if his success has come as a surprise to his biggest supporters. On a team stacked with a superstar (Helio Castroneves) and one of the best young drivers on the circuit in Briscoe, Power has put his teammates firmly in his rearview mirror.

"In his head it's always been about trying to be a champion," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "Early in our relationship I can't say I would have expected him to be in this position with our first full season with us ... but we felt he was a championship contender."

Chip Ganassi didn't. At least, not yet. Sure, the owner expected his team to continue to battle Penske for IndyCar supremacy. But he never thought it would be with the tall, laid-back guy in the No. 12 car.

"I didn't think we'd be racing him for the championship, I thought it would be one of the other Penske cars," Ganassi allowed. "I'm surprised, but the surprise has worn off. It's down to business."

And business has been very good to Ganassi. His team has won two of the last three championships and become a constant in Victory Lane at the Indy 500. Penske, meanwhile, has just one season title since 2002, a slump of sorts for the team that has set the gold standard in open-wheel racing for decades. Though Power led by as many as 59 points after taking the checkered flag at Sonoma in late-August, he's admitted to hearing the theme from "Jaws" every time he sees Franchitti's No. 10 on the track.

Franchitti has given him plenty of reason to be nervous. He's finished ahead of Power in each of the last three races, including a victory at Chicago that came on the same night Power came in a lowly 16th after a late pit mishap.

On the surface, it looks like Franchitti planned this all along. That's not exactly the case.

"I think the honest answer is that when a guy gets a big lead in a championship, you freak out," said Target Chip Ganassi Racing manager Mike Hull.

Franchitti saved the freaking out for his crew. He's been here before. So many times, he practically yawns at the prospect of having a season's worth of work come down to two hours of speed, strategy and a dash of racing luck.

A more than 4,000-mile journey will likely come down the final yards. For Power, it's a chance for the former Champ Car driver to validate himself as one of the sport's best.

For Franchitti, it's a chance to enter some elite company and start talking about his place in history. He would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only drivers to win three championships since the Indy Racing League was established in 1996. Add Franchitti's two Indy 500 victories and his relative youth and he could own a major portion of the record book by the time he retires.

Not that Franchitti wants to talk about it, brushing aside questions about his spot in IndyCar's pantheon. No biggie. To Ganassi, he's already there.

"He's among the all-time greats now," Ganassi said.

Saturday night will give Franchitti another chance to prove it.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press