What seemed like a commanding 59-point lead for Will Power has shrunk to 17 points with just two races remaining.
Franchitti appears primed to wrest the championship away from his rival at Team Penske as the Australian struggles to nab his first oval victory. Though he leads the series with five wins, all have come on street and road courses.
It used to be said that a driver couldn't win a championship in CART, Champ Car or IndyCar without winning a race on a street or road course. That favored drivers from outside of the United States who learned how to race by turning left and right rather than developing their skills on the ovals. But this year, that theory has been flipped as Power may not be able to win the title without a victory on an oval.
That is assuming that both Franchitti and Power are battling up front in the final two races. Power can still clinch the series championship simply by finishing ahead of Franchitti in the final two races, but that would end a trend that began at Chicagoland Speedway when Franchitti drove to victory while Power had to pit just five laps from the finish for fuel.
Franchitti finished fifth the following week at Kentucky Speedway, with Power coming in eighth, further tightening the championship race.
Scott Dixon, who at 83 points back, is still mathematically alive in the title chase, knows how important this race can be in the championship. Last year, Ryan Briscoe arrived at Japan with a 33-point lead over Dixon before a pit stop went terribly wrong. In Briscoe's haste to make it out of the pits, he spun his tires, hit the pit wall and broke the front suspension on his car, taking out the orange pylon at the end of pit road in the process. Dixon went on to win the race and take over the lead by five points.
"I don't know if I ever will let go of what happened at Motegi," Briscoe admitted. "The timing of it was bad, but I can't change it. You could blame the championship just as much on a crash earlier in the season, but the timing of that mistake is one you can't let go of."
Could Power be pulling a "Ryan Briscoe" this year?
"I think his team has let him down," Dixon said. "At Chicago his team let him down when they had the fuel problem and they changed strategies at the end at Kentucky. I don't think it is Power's fault, I think it is the team's fault."
Dixon admits that the championship appears to be falling into Franchitti's lap.
"That's what happens in championships, man," Dixon said. "I've been involved on both sides where you have had this massive lead and it crumbles to nothing for the last race or you have been miles behind and you win in it in the last race. I think it's cool. It's what we are all about.
"I think it would be boring if it were sewed up by Japan."
That makes for a tension-filled trip to Japan for Power and Franchitti as they undoubtedly replay the points race in their minds.
"Dario has been there before and raced well in Japan and had a shot at winning the race in Japan," Dixon said. "It's Will's first time racing at Motegi. Will is aggressive and is with a great team and with Ryan and Helio Castroneves, Team Penske has had some great results there in the past. I think Will surprised a lot of people this year and I think he will keep on surprising."
In five IndyCar Series races at Motegi, Franchitti has never driven to victory but has two top-5 and three top-10 finishes in those contests including a second-place finish to Dixon last year. He also drove in five CART/Champ Car contests at Motegi with two top-5 and three top-10 finishes in five starts with a second-place finish in 2000 and a third-place in 2002.
Dixon puts his money on his Target/Chip Ganassi teammate, Franchitti, to win the championship.
"What happened at Chicago, those are the things that turn a championship," Dixon said. "I think it's perfect. It makes it more exciting for everybody and a true champion will have to keep his composure all the way through until the end.
"You have to go with Dario. He's my teammate, but Dario has the experience and that matters at this point."
Power promises that he will be there at the end.
"We have to have a good finish," Power said. "I can't afford to have another bad one. We've had difficulty on all the ovals this year. We're due for a good result on a 1.5-mile oval. We have to have one. When you are coming to a race you think of the points but when you are in a car you are trying to win.
"We need to have a podium result but we have to beat Dario."
If Power can do that then he will win the championship. But with the season ending on the ovals, the Team Penske driver can't afford another slip-up.
When Randy Bernard became the CEO of the Indy Racing League it didn't take him long to realize that the acronym "IRL" stirred up mixed emotions among fans reminded of the bitter civil war that split the sport in two when CART teams boycotted the Indianapolis 500.
"IRL has a negative connotation since the divorce and IndyCar is known around the world," Bernard said. "I just came back from Europe and everyone over there is familiar with IndyCar. The same when we went Brazil. You want to create a perception and welcome back the 15-20 million fans we lost in the 1990s to come back to their roots. The first thing we can do is make sure our brand image is very positive."
Last Friday at The Milwaukee Mile, Bernard announced that beginning next season, the sanctioning body will be known as IndyCar and not the IRL. IndyCar will sanction the IZOD IndyCar Series and the developmental Firestone Indy Lights. From that point forward, the Indy Racing League will no longer be the name of the sanctioning body and IRL will no longer be used.
Critics of the split called it everything from the "Indy Revenge League" to the "Irrelevant Racing League" to the "Idiots and Rookies League." Bernard realized there were more negative remarks than positive so he killed the IRL name.
Bernard also promised to make some bold moves to advance the series. He took a big step in that direction by returning to the sport's roots, announcing a three-year contract to add The Milwaukee Mile to the 2011 IndyCar schedule.
"Our key attributes about technology, innovation and speed all have elements to a traditional track like The Milwaukee Mile," Bernard said. "I've heard from the traditionalists and the purists that they want The Milwaukee Mile back on the schedule. We are lucky enough to deliver."
Other highlights on the schedule include the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. on March 27, the popular street race in Sao Paulo, Brazil will be moved to May 1, The Milwaukee Mile will be on Father's Day (June 19), Iowa has been moved to a Saturday night race on June 25 and new events at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Aug. 14 and the Streets of Baltimore on Labor Day weekend have been added.
The final race of the season is left as a TBA, but Bernard confirmed that discussions are centering on Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with an answer expected within the next two weeks. If Las Vegas is unable to host the season finale, then it would go to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. -- which would make it the only International Speedway Corporation (ISC) track on the schedule.
Bernard has decided to end the relationship with ISC for the time being but "doesn't want to close any doors on the future."
"If you live in Chicago, you will look at leaving ISC as a negative," Bernard said. "Our position is we have to go to the tracks that are best for the series and right now we have to go with the promoters that want to be aggressive in marketing and promoting IndyCar. John Saunders, their chief operating officer, met at Chicagoland and we agreed to work together if there is any interest in going forward. ISC has some great tracks but we need to make sure everybody has the same objectives to take this sport to the next direction."
AB Promotions -- a joint venture between Avocado Motorsports Marketing and BMG Event Productions -- will manage and promote the Milwaukee race for 2011.
Bernard said the series has to do what is best for the sport and even if that means leaving a traditional track at Watkins Glen to be involved with a more active promoter.
"Watkins Glen is a beautiful place and I believe they really tried up there," Bernard said. "But we have to go where we are going to deliver the best thing for our activation and promotion. Houston is an option for 2012 when we hope to see 24-25 promoters vying for 17 races on the schedule."
Bernard is not afraid to make significant changes to IndyCar and he has the promotional flare and ability to get this series back on the fast track.
"The only way you know is after 10 races. You could finish dead-last at Loudon and theoretically still win the championship, so it's hard to say how much of an impact Loudon really makes 'til you get down to the end and you look at the point standings. I think probably the most important part is just momentum for the team and keeping the morale of the team up. You don't want to start the Chase and get behind and feel like you've got a strike against you for the next nine weeks. If you can get that momentum early and even if you just have a solid, decent run that can make a big difference in the morale of the team."
-- NASCAR driver Tony Stewart on the importance -- or lack thereof -- to getting off to a good start in the first race in the "Chase."
While the Sprint Cup's Chase kicks off Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, I'm off to Twin Ring Motegi for the Indy Japan 300. Going to Japan takes quite a bit of effort. Beginning with a 3 a.m. wake-up call on Wednesday, a 6 a.m. flight to Chicago O'Hare Airport followed by a 10:50 a.m. flight to Tokyo's Narita Airport, the marathon 16-hour flight is followed by a 3.5-hour bus ride to Utsunomiya. If I'm still functioning at that point it's a quick dinner then off to bed.
Despite the arduous trip, being in Japan is fantastic. It's a chance to experience a different culture in one of the cleanest and most polite countries in the world. When fans ask for autographs from the IndyCar drivers, they actually give the drivers gifts. It's a long trip but one that gives a new perspective on the world.