JOLIET, Ill. -- Thanks to a "Fuelish Issue" that happened to Will Power at the end of Saturday night's race at Chicagoland Speedway, the IZOD IndyCar Series has a points race again.
Power entered Saturday night's PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 holding a 59-point lead over Dario Franchitti with four races remaining to decide the season title. With Power in contention late in the race, it appeared that even if Franchitti won, Power would still hold a significant points lead.
On Lap 172, however, his championship charge got derailed. On what should have been his final pit stop, the crew had trouble getting all of the fuel into the car. So when Power pulled out of the pits, he did not have enough ethanol in the tank to make it to the finish of the race. With just four laps remaining Power ran out of fuel, dropping through the field like a boat anchor. He was forced into pit lane to get enough fuel to finish the race in 16th place. To make matters worse for the Team Penske driver, Franchitti went on to win the race by just four hundredths of a second over Dan Wheldon in the sixth-closest finish in series history.
Instead of a sizeable points lead, Power's advantage is now just 23 points over Franchitti with three races remaining -- all on ovals. Power has never won at an oval track, while Franchitti now owns 12 IndyCar oval victories.
Franchitti snagged his third win this season and his second at Chicagoland Speedway. Franchitti also won the Indianapolis 500 on May 30 and at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course earlier this month.
When Power pulled into the pits after the race, Team Penske team manager Clive Howell dropped his head in despair. Power climbed out of the race car, hurriedly took off his helmet and HANS Device and stormed out of the pits. It wasn't long before a group of reporters was able to track him down as the Australian marched up pit road.
"I want to win the championship, and we can't make mistakes like that," Power said. "We were running at the front all day, and it's just an unfortunate mistake. When we went out after that pit stop, they told me I wasn't going to make it to the end without another caution flag.
"I was having a lot of fun out there. Oh man, that sucked. I wanted to win so badly! But that's racing -- these things go on. It was like a game of chess out there. You had to put yourself in the right spot. I felt that first oval victory in my hand, but that is life."
What it is is the beginning of another great IndyCar Series points race.
When it comes to thrilling battles that go down to the last laps of the final race of the season there is no other racing series in the world that has produced better points races than IndyCar. Consider that Franchitti won the 2007 series title in the last turn of the last lap of the final race at Chicagoland Speedway when Scott Dixon ran out of fuel. Or last year, when Franchitti pulled another one out at the very end when both Dixon and Ryan Briscoe had to pit for fuel with just five laps left in the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
With Franchitti's victory combined with Power's 16th-place finish, Franchitti is poised to make a serious run at a third IndyCar championship.
"It's going to be a fight -- a fight to the wire," Franchitti said. "The Penske team is very strong. And I know how good Target/Chip Ganassi is. Trust me; I'll be peddling as hard as I can."
Power had led 17 laps in the race and was in contention to minimize his points loss even if Franchitti won the race. But without enough fuel to make it to the finish he was placed in a difficult position.
And Franchitti benefited from a last-second decision by team engineer Chris Simmons, who called off a tire change and opted for a fuel-only final pit stop to make up valuable track position.
"It was a difficult night for the car -- we just weren't very fast," Franchitti said. "We had a fifth-place car, and on that last stop Chris Simmons made the call not to take tires and get the track position. They called off tires very late in the pit stop, and my fueler did a great job getting the fuel in there, and I got off pretty quick. On the restart Dan Wheldon was going to work with me, and Dan was great to work with."
Ironically, the top three finishers were in the same order as the Indianapolis 500 when Franchitti finished ahead of Wheldon and Marco Andretti.
Franchitti is not a fan of the high-speed racing at the Chicagoland oval. He believes there are more risks than rewards, but on Saturday night he was on the receiving end of a positive result.
"There is nothing wrong with this track, but I don't like the style of racing that goes on here," Franchitti said. "I much more prefer it to be more in the driver's hands, but at the same time this track has been bloody good to me. This one feels special to pull it out like this. This is like restrictor-plate racing. That is a good analogy. A lot of the 1.5-mile tracks produces three- and four-wide racing. The fans really love it. I just like a bit more control in the driver's hands."
Power was in position to take firm control of the championship, but that lead vanished as the ethanol in his tank evaporated into exhaust fumes at the end of the race.
"You saw how quick these things can change, especially on these 1.5-mile tracks," Franchitti said. "We could have given up halfway through the race, so it's nice to be on the end of winning the thing tonight. It's far from being over on both things tonight. Will had a problem not getting enough fuel in, so it's going to be interesting to see what happens over these last three races.
"Sometimes it's how brave or how stupid you want to be. There were some nice moves made out there and some bloody stupid moves out there. It's good that everybody got out of here in one piece tonight."
Everybody may have gotten out in one piece, but Power's points lead sure didn't.