So, the battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship has come down to this – two drivers from the top two teams in the series, going for it all. Will Power and Dario Franchitti have been pretty much the class of the field for the entire season. They are the only two drivers to lead the points all year, so it’s only right that it should be between the two of them.
For a while, it looked as if the only thing that could stop either of them on their path to destiny was Tropical Storm Nicole. The storm hovered around the south Florida area for several days, before moving up the east coast. It would have been ironic that the last IndyCar race at Homestead would be affected by what gave birth to this race track in 1995 – a hurricane. After Hurricane Andrew ravaged the entire area in August of 1992, Florida businessman Ralph Sanchez decided the wasteland caused by Andrew would be an ideal site for a new racing facility. This was at the beginning of the race track boom of the nineties that also saw new oval tracks spring up in Texas, Chicago, Las Vegas, Fontana, Kansas, Pikes Peak, Orlando, Kentucky and Nashville.
The track has gone through three major facelifts in its short fifteen year history. At first, it resembled a one and a half mile version of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with four distinct corners. With the confines too tight for passing, the turns at each end were rounded out in 1997 to resemble a big Milwaukee Mile. The flat turns were still not allowing a lot of passing so steep banking was added in 2003. For whatever reason, no configuration has featured heart-pumping racing at Homestead– but the races aren’t boring either.
One year removed from last year’s race, I’m still kind of puzzled as to what exactly happened. There were three drivers still eligible for the championship. Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe were all bunched together at the top. Once the race started, it was like all the other teams just hit the brakes and let them on by. Those were the only three cars on the lead lap at the end of the race. Many complained that this was the epitome of a season that saw Penske and Ganassi cars take all but one race in a season of pure domination. I saw it as a lazy excuse for the other teams. No one brought their A-game except for Penske and Ganassi. There has always been the case of the haves and have-nots in racing, and it will always be that way. Teams can choose to gripe about the gap between the top two teams, or they can try to narrow that gap. Last year at Homestead, it didn’t look like many teams were interested in narrowing the gap.
The race itself was a bit bizarre. Although it was a three-way battle, most considered the contest to be between Briscoe and Dixon, especially after the start of the race when Franchitti faded back. Ryan Briscoe drove the race of his life and Dixon held serve. But near the end, it became apparent that the race had become a fuel mileage battle that Franchitti’s slower car would ultimately win – along with the 2009 championship.
Now Franchitti is in the mix again, with Will Power as his prey. Power is holding a slim twelve point lead heading into Saturday night’s race. If Power wins the race, he wins the championship – end of story. Depending on how the weekend unfolds, Franchitti may or may not win the championship by wining the race. If Dario wins the pole, wins the race and leads the most laps in doing so – he’ll win, no matter where Power finishes.
The IZOD IndyCar Series has been very lucky over the last several seasons. Their championship has gone down to the last race – sometimes to the last corner of the last race. This year may be no different. I expect both of these cars to be up front most of the day. But this year, the winner will be greeted by a new championship trophy. At first glance, this looks like Randy Bernard’s first blunder. It is a stalk of wood with what looks like a tortured superhero riding a unicycle sitting atop the whole thing. Reaction in the blogosphere appears to be mixed – but I hate it. I know, I know…I’m a boring traditionalist. But I kind of liked the old trophy, although since Randy Bernard wants to shelve the old IRL moniker, they had to retire the previous trophy. But this? You decide.
Of course, there will be a few other cars in the race. I’m assuming they’ll put up more of a fight than last year. Some drivers are auditioning for new jobs while others will be trying to keep the ones they’ve got. Then some drivers are just flat out racing for fun – like Ed Carpenter. He drove well enough to win at Chicago. He didn’t make the trip to Motegi and doesn’t appear to have anything nailed down for 2011 – so expect Ed to make the most of this weekend. Dan Wheldon does very well at this track and is trying to land a spot somewhere for next year. Then there are the other two Penske drivers who have sponsorship issues. I don’t think Helio is going anywhere, but Ryan Briscoe might want to duplicate his effort from last year at Homestead.
Then there are the murky waters that the two championship contenders must navigate on Saturday night. I’m talking about the backmarkers; and Milka and the KV boys in particular. Power and Franchitti need to exert great care every time they come up on one of those cars.
So who’s it going to be? I think Dario keeps it close and interesting, but Will Power will keep him at bay enough to edge him out for the championship. But neither driver will win the race. Surprisingly, that honor will go to Miami resident Tony Kanaan.