By now, the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship is yesterday's news. Dario Franchitti chased down Will Power during the final four races of the season – all on oval tracks – and secured the title when Power brushed the wall in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But that's only the story we saw. What was behind the scenes? What dynamics were in play between the veteran and the relative newcomer and between Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Verizon Team Penske? What do the two drivers involved in the championship battle think about the events that led them to that point? After the dust had settled, we decided to ask them.
What was the pivotal moment in the championship battle?
Dario: I could see Mid-Ohio was a good race for us. We struggled on the road courses, but we'd got more of a handle on the car in Mid-Ohio. Looking back on it, that was the turning point, but the last four races were where we really started to catch Will.
Will: I would say Chicagoland was probably the biggest hit we had in points. We went from leading at the last pit stop, with 30 laps to go, to finishing 16th. Dario came out in front and won and we had to pit again for fuel. That was a big points loss.
Likewise, was there a moment during the season when you thought the other guy had the championship in the bag?
Dario: There were points at which I realized we might not win the championship. All we could do was work harder and push harder. There was no point in getting stressed about it. We just kept moving forward.
Will: I always knew it was going to come down to the last race. I knew the last four races were on ovals and one of them I hadn't ever raced on. I knew it would be tight, but I thought I'd be competitive. And we were: we just weren't quite there. Something always caught us out. The details caught us out.
Is it more difficult to be engaged in a championship battle against a team that has one more car than you?
Dario: Some days it was a positive, and some days negative. We definitely saw both this year. It's an advantage for Penske in terms of feedback and data gained. Any information you can get on track is key. The negative part is if you go down the wrong road with setup, you continue farther down the wrong road.
Was it an advantage? It seemed like Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves were engaging Dario as often as possible.
Will: I would say it probably helped at Motegi. At some of the other races, it was hard for all three of us to have good races at the same time. Ryan fought very hard at Motegi. Having two teammates is an advantage from the perspective that you can really work on the car setup.
What advantage did Scott Dixon provide? Was he a crucial part of this championship?
Dario: For me, it is the same thing as it was last year: Scott and I push each other to the absolute limit each week. We always work closely together but we're always trying to beat the other guy. That pushes you on. I've learned from him and he's learned from me.
Then, when it became a two-horse race, Scott changed from a championship challenger to helping me win it. That was a very big assistance. In Sonoma, he attacked Will with everything he had. Some of that was trying to be in the title fight himself and some of it was knowing I was in it, too.Will:
In the last race, Dixon certainly helped Dario. Dario had a few friends out there on the track who could make it a little difficult for us, but I can't think of an instance near the end where Scott engaged us. Except maybe Kentucky.
Critique the oval skills of Will Power.
Dario: [Laughing] I don't think he needs any help. He's obviously a very good road and street driver. He upped his game this year. We had the measure of him in 2009 on road and street courses, but this year he was much better on the ovals. At Indianapolis, he was very good and I think he's going to be very tough to beat on ovals in the future.
Will: I don't really need to make much more progress on ovals. I can't think of a time, other than Kansas, when I wasn't running at the front. It's just a matter of finishing. We were in situations this year where, for whatever reason, we didn't finish properly on ovals. I'm not concerned about my ability. I can race anyone out there. I can be as fast as anyone. The team and I just have to pull it together. No mistakes. I'm not concerned about it. I feel like we'll be very strong on ovals next year.
Do you sense Will is learning anything from watching you?
Dario: As many years as I've been doing this, I still learn from other drivers in some situations, so I'm sure he's picking up something. It does come down to all these minute things, all these tiny details that a team acquires over the years, but ultimately it's all about getting in the car and driving the wheels off the thing. It's really all about doing what you did when you got into karts when you were a kid.
Will: Dario is race smart…that's what stands out for me. If his car hasn't got it, he just hangs there. He doesn't make a mistake or push beyond the car's limits. The only time I saw him make a mistake was in St. Pete when he hit the wall – and he still came back and finished fifth.
Obviously he's got a lot of experience, and knows how to win titles. When he has to push hard, like at Motegi, he can push very hard. That's his strength – understanding where he needs to be and what his car can give him.
What's the most difficult aspect of learning oval racing? Is there a trick to it, or just a matter of seat time?
Dario: Feel, seat time, mental attitude. It certainly doesn't hurt having Helio and Ryan there for him, and good cars, too. Road racing is second nature to most of us by the time we reach this level, but ovals are the unknown. I struggled at it when I first came over. I got up to speed quickly on short ovals, but big speedways were tougher to get a handle on.
Will: For me, the trick is understanding the strategy of oval races and where to place your car. You simply can't make mistakes. It's a matter of hitting my marks in the pits and those sorts of things. The good thing is, when you race for Penske, you always have fast cars and a fast crew. It's a matter of being smart and getting it done.
Do you have any weaknesses?
Dario: Oh, yeah. Are you kidding me? There's a load of things you can improve, both with my team and myself. We only won three races this year and, as a team, we won only six. That shows we've got work to do – the team has to work harder and I have to work harder. Nothing stands still in this sport. If you think you've got them covered, you'll look like an idiot.
Will: My weakness is lack of experience on ovals. That's how you continue to get better; you constantly look at what you can improve. What I needed was miles, and I got that.
You had a heartbreaking championship loss back in 1999, so what advice would you give Will about a close loss?
Dario: When I lost the championship in 1999, I lost Greg Moore that day, so I didn't really give a shit about the championship. Will has been doing this a long time. Trust me, he'll be working hard to get over it. He'll be fine.
Did you expect to be racing for the championship when the season started?
Will: I expected to be running at the front, but I didn't expect it to become a two-man race. I expected all five Penske and Ganassi drivers to be there at the end. It ended up being Dario and me. To be honest, I'd have been disappointed had I not been running at the front all the time. If you don't run up front with a team like this, you're not going to last very long in this business.
POWER BY CASTROVNEVES
Will is funny. He's not a guy you get to know right away. He's a little bit shy, but it's a shy that says, “You need to get to know me a little better, and then we'll have some fun.”
Will, Ryan and I were the three amigos this season, and we had a great time. We care about each other and understand how to work together as a team. Racing is all about communication, and we had that all year.
The thing that surprised me most about Will was his consistency. I noticed right away that he had something interesting in his technique, and I tried to pick up some of it. He's great for me, because he makes me better. It's like getting a new computer. Sometimes you have to upgrade your system, and Will was an upgrade for me. He pushed Ryan and me to be better, and we're both grateful for it.
Will is helping us reach another level, and that's what it's all about. He's earned the respect of the whole racing community for what he's accomplished and how he's handled himself. We never take it for granted where we are or how we got here.
With Will's help, Team Penske is going to build on what we accomplished this season and hopefully finish 1-2-3 next year in the championship!
FRANCHITTI BY DIXON
Dario is a fierce competitor, and I'm sincerely glad he's my teammate (RIGHT). I've learned a lot from him, and that's invaluable to me.
We hit it off right away when he first came to the team, and I think it was a case of mutual respect. I knew he was going to be a force for this team, and I knew that would only make me better. There's a great deal of trust there, too, and you can't say enough about how advantageous that is for a race team.
When two drivers on the same team genuinely like each other, it's a huge benefit. We talk constantly, which makes everything mesh. He's always been gracious and a gentleman, so it's easy to get along with him.
He's definitely come on at the right point in his career. They say that the mid-30s are your peak in most forms of athletics, so he's at his peak right now. The mental part and the physical part are coming together at the right time.
You can still see the fire with Dario, and you can see that he's an extremely competitive person. Right now you'd have to say that he's at his peak.