Bruce Martin
Friday October 1st, 2010

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When Dario Franchitti was asked if his 2010 season could still be considered a success if he doesn't bring home his third IndyCar title in four seasons, the Scotsman scoffed.

"I'm in it, to win it," Franchitti said. "We're going there to win. I've said it many times, You can only do your best, but we are going there to win. That is why we do this."

As he enters Saturday night's Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Franchitti is just 11 points behind Team Penske driver Will Power after Friday's qualifying. Earning bonus points for most laps led could shift the points, but it's a virtual winner-take-all scenario for these two.

When Power drove to victory at Infineon Raceway on Aug. 22, he had a commanding 59-point lead over Franchitti .But with the final four races of the season on oval race tracks, Franchitti had a marked advantage because of his 16 career IndyCar wins on ovals.

Power, however, was in prime contention to increase that points lead the following weekend at Chicagoland Speedway when he was battling for the race lead before his crew was unable to get enough fuel in his car on what should have been his final pit stop. That forced Power into the pits just six laps before the end of the race. He finished 16th; Franchitti won.

But while Power's once-commanding lead has dimmed, he remains out front.

"I'd much rather have the 12-point lead than the opposite," Power said. "We just have to go there for the first half of the race and be very smart about it. At the end of the day, if I'm in a position where I will not win the championship then I have to become very aggressive and do everything I can.

"That means taking some risks."

In the last three seasons Franchitti has raced in the IndyCar Series, he has been involved in a tight, last-race points championship. In the 2007 championship season, Franchitti, then driving for Andretti Green Racing, competed in a gut-wrenching championship chase that involved his now Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon.

As the two drivers entered the final race of the season at Chicagoland Speedway, Dixon was in position to win the championship until he ran out of fuel in the last turn of the last lap of the race. Franchitti went on to win his first championship in either CART or IndyCar.

"There was that period in '07 where we almost couldn't do anything wrong," Franchitti recalled. "Then when Dan Wheldon flipped it into the air at Michigan we were close to leading at that point and that started a downward spiral. Then I crashed after the checkered flag the next race at Kentucky, then Marco Andretti and I got together at Sonoma, then Scott spun and took us out at Detroit -- we couldn't do anything right.

"That was a very frustrating situation to watch the points lead disappear like that."

In 2009, it was a three-driver, winner-take-all championship situation with Franchitti in his first season in the Target IndyCar along with Dixon and Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe. Last season, the leader in the standings swapped 15 times over the 17 races. Dixon led entering the finale by five points over Franchitti and by eight over Team Penske's Briscoe.

In the season finale, Dixon and Briscoe dueled at the front, both seeking to pick up the critical two bonus points for leading the most laps after Franchitti earned one bonus point for starting from the pole. It was the first caution-free race in series history and while Dixon and Briscoe were racing each other, Franchitti was on a fuel-conservation strategy.

Dixon had to pit for fuel seven laps from the finish and Briscoe just five from the checkered flag. Franchitti went on to win the race and the title by just 11 points over Dixon. This year, Dixon is out of championship consideration, the first time Franchitti has been involved in a championship race without him as one of the leading contenders.

"I don't miss having Scott involved because he is bloody difficult to beat," Dixon said. "When you are up against Scott he is a very, very intense competitor. There is a part of me, as his friend, I would love for him to be in the fight but the selfish part is glad he is not because he is bloody difficult to beat."

Franchitti is discovering that Power is just as much of a challenge.

"Will has done a great job this year," Franchitti said. "We haven't done such a good job as we did last year. The Target team has not been as good as last year where we won 10 out of 17 races in 2009 and were fairly dominant. We haven't had that kind of performance this year."

This is Power's first time in a major championship battle and his strength on the street and road courses may be more than enough to give him an advantage without an oval victory. But while Power has never taken a checkered flag on a circle track, he has been more than competitive. Two weeks ago at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, Power finished third, finishing just short of Franchitti and race-winner Helio Castroneves.

"I think before Chicagoland everybody said I need to win on an oval to win a championship, but the past two races I certainly don't struggle on ovals," Power said. "I feel that I could win on an oval now -- it just has to go right for me."

When it comes to racing at Homestead, the advantage goes to Franchitti. In four CART races at the track, Franchitti never drove to victory and had one top-5 (third in 1999) and two top-10 finishes. But in IndyCar Series competition, Franchitti is the defending champion of this race. That is his lone victory and among his two top-5 and four top-10 finishes in six Homestead starts.

Franchitti has the veteran savvy and championship experience to know what it takes to win a championship, but Power drives with fearless tenacity to do whatever it takes to win a title.

"The first half of the race I have to be smart," Power said. "I just need to be smart. I don't think you can predict what is going to happen; you have to be ready for anything. Every single second of that race I have to do the best I can do without taking too big of a risk. But the last 50 laps you will have to go for it if I'm not in a position to win the championship."

The Penske driver enjoys racing Franchitti because of his racing style and knows that it will be a clean fight.

"He is a fair racer," Power said of Franchitti. "The most enjoyable thing is when you actually beat Dario, you have beaten a guy who is among the very best. It's going to be a fair fight. I would expect that. There is nothing worse in racing than being involved with someone who is unfair."

Power's rise to the top has come in a most unusual way. When Castroneves was embroiled in a tax evasion trial in Miami, he had to turn the car over to Power. The Aussie realized if Castroneves was found guilty, he would remain in the car, but if the driver was acquitted, Castroneves would get his ride back.

When a jury acquitted Castroneves of the charges, Power was switched from the No. 3 to the No. 12 car on a part-time basis. But Power was so impressive in his limited role that Team Penske decided to field three cars in the series in 2010.

"From the minute we sat down and talked to him about filling in for Helio, back in the beginning of 2009, he was adamant that he felt like he could win this championship," said Team Penske president Tim Cindric. "He continued to say, 'I know I can compete for this championship. I know I can get there, I just need the chance,' and that's continued to be really the thing that he's been very consistent in his belief. And it wasn't as much as I can win races or I'm fast enough. In his head, it's always been about trying to be a champion."

It has all added up to the defining season of Power's racing career.

"Yes, it's the best season I've had in my career and I'm with a top team, as well," Power said. "I'm always thinking next year I'm going to be so much stronger because of my knowledge on ovals now. Over the winter you think about it and I will come back so much stronger. The experience I have now I will be in such a better position, not only on the road courses, but on the ovals.

"It is an amazing set of circumstances that put me in that position. I really can't believe it. The fact I got that opportunity is amazing. How it all played out is unbelievable. I feel fortunate. I think, 'Wow, I was almost ready to go back to Australia and I got the opportunity to run for Team Penske."

Win or lose, it will still be Power's best season but in order to win the championship he will have to fend off a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time IndyCar Series champion who understands how every point counts in a long season.

"If you have to go out there and race, if you start to 'point race' you are going to end up screwing up," Franchitti said. "You have to get out there and do what you have done every other race. There really is no secret.

"It's not about that last race; it's about the whole season," he said. "It's about the 17 races as whole. It could come down to the last corner of the last lap had my gearbox not broken at Iowa while I was leading it might be a different story right now. Had Will not had some of his problems it might have been a different story right now. Everybody focuses on that last race, but so many things go before it."

A third IndyCar Series championship combined with two Indianapolis 500 wins would establish Franchitti as one of the sport's all-time greats. A first IndyCar Series title would solidify Power as one of its brightest stars. And while either driver would make a worthy champion, the edge goes to Franchitti whose strength in last-race championship battles makes him a fierce competitor.

Regardless of who hoists the championship trophy at the end of Saturday night's race, IndyCar will once again have the benefit of another thrilling season championship that comes down to the final race.

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