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Power-Franchitti battle tightens, while Danica bounces back in Japan

For Danica Patrick, Sunday's run in the IZOD IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300 couldn't have come at a better time. And for Will Power and Dario Franchitti, the IndyCar championship is going down to the final laps of the season with just 12 points separating the two drivers heading into the season finale on October 2.

Oh, by the way, Helio Castroneves won the race.

After Patrick talked to SI.com about the most disappointing IndyCar season of her career, she came back with a fifth-place finish on Sunday after starting 12th. It was another solid effort at the track where she scored her only IndyCar win on April 20, 2008.

"It's always nice to do well at tracks considered driver's tracks," Patrick said. "A lot of the passes came on the track and not in the pits. It's a nice feeling to have good starts and restarts. It shows that I had a good race car today and I'm confident in it."

Patrick's 12th-place effort in Saturday's qualifications left her disappointed and she thought if she could finish in the top-five she would be "thrilled." But the finish ultimately wasn't enough for her.

"Usually if you get to that position you think how you could have made it up even more," Patrick said. "It would have been nice to finish on the podium [top three]. I'm pleased but I'm not thrilled. Being a competitor you always think of 'woulda, coulda, what shoulda been.'"

Patrick had a car that was very good on restarts which is important in this form of racing and she was able to turn well in the tight Turns 3 and 4 on the egg-shaped track. But most important for Patrick is the timing of this effort after she has had a horrible string on finishes on ovals, street and road course this season.

"I've just been really frustrated with this season," Patrick said. "It seems like all the hard work we put in that when we have a good day it doesn't show in the results. Today shows in the results that we moved up and had pace and ran with the lead-lap cars. It was a nice day to have. ... It came at the right time."

Patrick has little time to recover after a 13-hour flight back to the United States as she heads to Dover, Del., to compete in Friday's K&N Filters All Pro race and Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event at the Monster Mile. The concrete oval is one of the most demanding tracks in NASCAR and Patrick admits she has trepidation heading into next weekend.

"Everybody has put the fear of God into me about Dover," Patrick said. "I'm pretty nervous about Dover. I have three different in-car DVDs to watch in preparation and I'm doing two races that weekend to prepare as much as possible for that track."

While Patrick is fearing Dover, Power has a fear of his own to deal with as the Team Penske driver lost five points on his series lead to Franchitti. Dario finished second behind Castroneves, just ahead of Power in third.

"Of course we would go into the last race not with 14 points. No, it would be 12," Power lamented. "If Dario happens to win the pole, lead the most laps and win the race he wins the championship by one point. It's almost like it is staged. How is that?

"I've never finished ahead of Dario Franchitti on an oval, ever. The only time I have finished ahead of him is when he didn't finish the race at all. I'm getting closer. I really want to finish ahead of him."

By points, Franchitti has been in the series on the ovals, winning the A.J. Foyt Trophy on Sunday by accumulating more points on an oval than any other driver.

"The A.J. Foyt Trophy -- that's a great thing to have," Franchitti said. "I'm very privileged to have won that award. Now it's off to the big one."

This is the fourth time in Franchitti's career that he has been involved in a last race of the season championship battle. He lost the 1999 CART title to Juan Pablo Montoya despite being tied after the final race but Montoya's seven wins to Franchitti's three was the tie-breaker. He won the 2007 IndyCar title when his closest pursuer, Scott Dixon, ran out of fuel in the final turn of the final lap of the final race of the season at Chicagoland Speedway. Franchitti's fuel-saving strategy at Homestead was enough to give him the title last year when he went 52 laps on a tank of fuel while the other contenders -- Dixon and Ryan Briscoe -- both had to pit in the final seven laps.

"It's all to play for in the last race at Homestead," Franchitti said. "We did what we could do [Sunday]. Helio was really in a class of his own. We could have got some more points if Will had stayed back further. Now, it's off to Homestead. It's a mountain to climb; an obstacle in front of you. We have to be able to climb that and be ready. We're ready for a fight."

Patrick won't be involved in a championship fight next week but she is quick to predict the winner of the championship.

"I still think Dario is going to do it," Patrick said. "He has the experience and the confidence on the ovals versus Will. If the last race was on a road course I would pick Will. They are both phenomenal road course drivers but Dario has the experience on the ovals."

Power is the winningest driver in IndyCar this season with five victories but all have come on street and road courses. Franchitti has 16 oval track wins in IndyCar while Power has never driven to victory on an oval.

That will be enough to give Franchitti an edge for his third-straight IndyCar Series title.

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