Aside from their infamous Toronto shunt, which saw Power eventually DNF thanks to an Alex Tagliani drop-kick and Franchitti drive on to victory, the No. 12 got spun out by Castroneves on a restart in Long Beach, and at Iowa he eventually hit the wall in a car already damaged when he was released from his pit box into the path of Charlie Kimball. In light of those incidents, it's not a surprise to find Franchitti playing the opposite role to last year, having built up a sizable points lead before seeing it diminish over the past couple races.
“To be honest, I don't look back and think about how we came to be in this situation,” says the 2007, '09 and '10 champion, “but I think the double-file restarts and the early incidents this year took care some of the guys you'd expect to be challenging for the title. Even despite that, Scott [Dixon] is still in contention. I'd definitely say the side-by-side restarts have made it more difficult than ever to chalk up consistently strong finishes. It doesn't matter if you're at the front or whether your strategy has temporarily left you in the middle of the pack, those restarts can bite you. It's just something new we've all had to come to terms with.”
Rick Mears, who like Franchitti, won three IndyCar championships in the space of four seasons, says that whether a driver's in the role of hunter or hunted in the championship standings, his mentality should not change.
“You've got to just keep on doing what got you into that position,” he says. “It's like the Indy 500, where it's so easy to let it get inside your head and for you to treat it differently because it's the biggest race in the world. To me the key was to mentally treat it as another race on another track. Well, that's what needs to be done when you're running for the championship, too. Just keep doing what you've been doing.
“If there are only one or two races to go and you have a decent lead in the championship, then you can allow yourself to think, ‘OK, let's not take any huge risks.' But right now, the name of the game remains to win all the races. Don't let other thoughts about point gaps enter your head or there's a real danger of making this way too complicated.”
De Ferran wholeheartedly concurs. “If you go conservative now, you will arrive at the last two races in completely the wrong frame of mind – too defensive,” he says. “If I were in Will's situation or Dario's situation, I would ignore the point standings and try to beat everyone each and every weekend. If you drive conservative now, it's not just your main rival but every other driver out there who smells blood, you know? Suddenly you're not finishing top three; you're finishing sixth, seventh or eighth. Ignore the points, continue to do what got you there.”
Both of this year's title protagonists have taken that on board. Franchitti states: “I'm going to do things the way I have the last four or five years, and that's to try and get the best out of the car and the best out of the situation every race weekend.” Power adds: “It's not smart to change how you race. When you try to drive in a way that doesn't come naturally, you start making stupid mistakes – or getting caught up in other people's even more stupid mistakes!”
Oval racing was once (may still be by some) perceived as Power's bête-noire, but he won one half of the Texas doubleheader this year. Mears and de Ferran say he's already good enough to win more and will only get better, and even Franchitti says his rival was good enough last year but “just got a couple of unlucky breaks.”
Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing, observes: “Oval racing may have been a question mark over Will going into last year, but he made amazing progress as the season went on. Now, we wouldn't count him out any place we race. He's enormously talented and he looks like he's a quick study.”
Cindric says: “Will's checked that box for us. He's been our strongest guy for a lot of ovals as well as the road and street courses. My concern is that our team probably isn't as good on ovals as Ganassi. For most of last year, I wouldn't say that was the case, but whatever it is that made them stronger than us at Homestead [the finale] last year has carried through to this year.”
Before Sonoma, Power didn't just single out ovals. “No question, Ganassi has gained on us on street and road courses. Last year I think we had an advantage over them at some tracks and on the others we were equal. This year, they've got something over us.”
It's hard not to agree. You think back to Toronto and Edmonton, where only Power's searing pace got him ahead of the Ganassi cars on the grid, while his teammates were several tenths down. Dixon has described the two-day test at Sebring, pre-Toronto as “pivotal” although Penske appears to have fought back.
“We clearly made a step forward compared to Penske,” says Dario, “although I've not benefited from that test quite as well as Scott. He now seems to have the car exactly how he wants it and I'm still missing a little bit with the balance. But I'm not in the least surprised that Chip is prepared to dedicate the time and money into these old cars. The way the Target team goes racing is that we'll look for gains right up to Vegas.”
De Ferran has no doubts why Franchitti and Ganassi have the edge. He says: “They have a high level of staff consistency and they have two champions in Dario and Scott, who've now been working with each other for almost three seasons. Speed is never an issue when you get to guys at this level – they're all very fast. It's the other aspects of the game that culminate in a good result at the end of the weekend, and Dario has been perfecting his craft, whether that's down to predicting how the track will change or how a race is evolving, and also aspects like dealing with team personnel. He's highly intelligent and outstandingly complete.
“I think Will is farther down the learning slope but gaining. He's obviously very, very quick, and also very aware of what's going on around him. And, in Penske, he's with a team that knows how to be champions. It's a very strong combination.
“But that's usually the way it is, you know? The best drivers end up driving for the best teams.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the October 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.