Bruce Martin
Monday September 21st, 2009

TOKYO -- Three drivers separated by just eight points heading into the final race of the season with a championship on the line. That's what the IndyCar Series has coming up with its winner-take-all season-finale in South Florida on Oct. 10.

This incredibly close, three-driver battle for a championship was set up when Scott Dixon capitalized on Ryan Briscoe's misfortune at Twin Ring Motegi on Saturday. Briscoe crashed while leaving the pits on lap 106 and Dixon drove on to victory, erasing a 33-point deficit and taking the points lead. The defending series champ has a five-point lead over Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti and an eight-point lead over Briscoe.

Briscoe blew it when he attempted to capitalize on a yellow flag that came out for a crash a few seconds after he had driven down pit road. If he had made it back onto the track before Dixon came around, he would have erased a half-lap deficit to lead the field by a full lap. But his car broke loose and made a hard-left into the inside wall just past pit exit. The impact damaged the front wing and left-front suspension on his car and he finished 18th after extensive repairs in pit lane.

Fear not for Briscoe, however. He was the fastest driver in preseason testing at Homestead and remains confident about his championship chances in three weeks.

"Let me be disappointed for a second about this race but we are definitely going to be going to Homestead with intentions to win the race and the championship," Briscoe said. "It's frustrating to throw away the lead like that but anyway... I'm just moving on to Homestead. That's all I'm thinking about."

The last time Franchitti was in a winner-take-all championship scenario in the final race was 2007, when he won the title by passing Dixon in the last turn of the last lap at Chicagoland Speedway after Dixon's car ran out of fuel. At that time, Franchitti drove for Andretti Green Racing. Now he's Dixon's teammate.

Not surprising, Dixon would like to even the score. "Dario and I 1-2 in the championship going down to the last race, it's what we expect for IndyCar," Dixon said. "It's going to come down to the final lap, the final corner of Miami."

While Danica Patrick and her agent continue to work on finalizing a contract with IndyCar Series team owner Michael Andretti, she reiterated over the weekend her interest in NASCAR, where she's expected to run a couple of lower division races next season.

"As I've said, NASCAR is something that interests me," Patrick said after Saturday's race and on the heels of her recent second meeting with Sprint Cup owner/driver Tony Stewart. "That's not a different answer and that's not a different idea, so I don't know why people are making a big deal about it. Tony gave me a lot of advice. I'm a ball of questions and I've known him for a long, long time. I also had a chance to congratulate him on the success this year as an owner/driver."

Patrick says no deal was discussed between the two, and besides, Stewart doesn't field a Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series team.

Patrick won the Indy Japan 300 last year to become the first female driver to win a race in a major closed-course racing series. She finished sixth this year and said, "It's a little anti-climatic coming back and walking back to the garages. I really liked coming back here as a winner from the season before. I hadn't had that feeling before. I want more of it. We're going to have to work hard as a team over the winter to figure out why the whole team isn't winning races."

Patrick said her car got better throughout the race before lapped traffic dictated her finish. However, she continues to have the magic with the fans. During Friday's autograph session that drew a crowd of over 3,500, the line for Patrick's autograph was by far the longest of any of the 23 drivers. When the rope was lifted to let the fans down pit lane, it looked like Pamplona, Spain, and the annual Running of the Bulls.

"I heard it," Patrick said. "I was walking through the garages and I heard this stampede sound and I knew it was the Super Fans."

Despite struggling to find additional sponsorship, Vision Racing team owner Tony George said at Motegi that one way or another, he intends to field at least a one-car team in both the IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights Series next season.

George did indicate, however, that lack of sponsorship has clouded the future of his team -- something ironic considering that George is the founder of the Indy Racing League and was the CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation before a dispute with the Hulman-George Family-controlled IMS board of directors led to his ouster on July 1.

"I have no formal agreements with anybody in terms of sponsorship," George said. "We have some basic nods and agreements in some relationship that we want to continue for next year, but until all of that gets firmed up I can't say I absolutely have them in hand.

"I feel reasonably certain we'll have at least one car and hopefully one in each series but my goal is to have two in each series."

George has fended off rumors that Vision Racing is considering shutting down its operation after this season.

"Right now I don't have anything and I can't continue if I don't have funding," George said. "I'm working on trying to put programs together on two cars for both series and I may or may not be successful in getting to where I need to be."

George has moved on after his ouster from IMS and says the time away has allowed him to focus on being an IndyCar Series team owner.

"I enjoy the role as team owner but I don't enjoy it any more than any of the other responsibilities I've had in the past," he said. "The team owner part has gotten less attention than it needs or deserves. I've been able to give it a little more attention that is necessary now as we try to make plans for next year, but I miss not having the formal responsibility that I had at Speedway and the League in the past.

"That doesn't mean that I'm working any less diligently on both their behalf's."

"Alan [Gustafson, crew chief] won that race -- that's all I got to say. He took a driver that can't drive Loudon and put a set-up in it that we could run along reasonable. Just like I said before the race, if they can stumble around and get me in the front then I might be able to stay there with it. That's what we did, but it was sure tough." -- Mark Martin, praising his crew chief after the NASCAR driver won the first race in the Chase on Sunday.

"I wish they'd been that good last year [in NASCAR]. It's brilliant for the whole team. Chip puts a lot into his racing and gives every team everything it needs to do their job. I mean, to see the improvement there, to see JPM [Juan Pablo Montoya] is not only in the Chase but stuck it on the pole down there in Loudon is really great to see, really great. Hopefully we can keep our end of the bargain." -- IndyCar Series driver Dario Franchitti on team owner Chip Ganassi having two drivers in IndyCar fighting for a title and Montoya in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.

"I'm happy with the first race. We're in the hunt. We're seventh in points and had a top 10 finish. The top 10 finish breeds for a good points finish and if we get to running like Mark [Martin] there, we'll be all right. There's one thing about Mark though. He's been strong like that but he hasn't been consistent, and we'll see if we can play the consistency route." -- Juan Pablo Montoya after finishing third at New Hampshire.

"That don't mean it's all right now. My car is tore up and he ain't got enough talent to run in the top-five I guess. He run down into the side of me and spun me out late in the race. I mean, we're all running real hard but you've got to know how much race car you've got and you've got to know how much talent you've got before you go down in the corner. He never knows." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. refusing to accept David Reutimann's apology for his role in a crash on lap 283 that took out Earnhardt at New Hampshire.

A Diet Coke and, of course, the second race of the Chase. During my week in Japan, my search for a Diet Coke proved fruitless because the product is not sold in that country. While I'm a big fan of Japanese cuisine, my thirst could not be quenched without my favorite beverage.

And, no, the Coca-Cola Company didn't pay me for the previous endorsement.

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