The opening part of the 2011 season saw somewhat of a seesaw battle between Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing, specifically among drivers Will Power and Dario Franchitti.
Franchitti fired the opening shot with a dominant victory over Power at the curtain raiser in St. Pete, during which me made a brilliant outside pass on the Australian driver to seize the lead in the early laps. However, Power fired back with wins at Barber Motorsports Park and Sao Paulo, Brazil, turning momentum back in his favor.
Even though they split the Firestone Twin 275’s last week, the feeling was that Power was having it all his way. In securing his first career oval win, he increased his lead in the standings to more than 20 points, with Franchitti not hiding his frustration at night’s end he made blind draw for starting spots in race two the focal point of his ire).
Heading into Milwaukee, Power held a clear advantage and seemed have all the momentum, especially given that he led opening practice on Friday. However, Franchitti and Chip Ganassi quickly turned the tide back in their favor.
Franchitti snagged the Pole on Saturday and then led 161 laps in a dominant victory on Sunday (albeit helped somewhat by Tony Kanaan’s crash and Helio Castroneves’ flat tire), while Power uncharacteristically struggled in qualifying, gridding 17th, before finishing fourth.
In all, it meant that Power’s point lead was completely erased, with he and Franchitti now tied on points at 271 Franchitti was very pleased to secure victory on at Milwaukee. “That was a hell of a run today. The first part of the race I thought I had a bit of an advantage on everybody. Very tough, as usual here. Tough on your own just balancing the car, but then you get in traffic and it gets really difficult. It's the same for everyone,” said the Scotsman afterward. He added, “Great day. To win here at Milwaukee is always special. It's such hard work and a such a hard race. It's a delight for the Target Team and we got the Downy colors in Victory Lane."
What’s more, Chip Ganassi’s “junior team” is also finding their stride with Graham Rahal. After a quiet day in which he ran mostly in the top ten, Rahal worked his way into the top five in the second half of the race and finished second, his third podium of the year. “A great job for the Service Central team today,” said a very happy Rahal, who now sits fifth in the standings. “To come from 12th and move up like that. We passed a lot of cars. I thought passing was going to be tough today and it was, but we were able to do it. I'm really proud of my guys. They gave me a great car, and yet again, qualifying is our weak link, but time and time again we're proving we can compete and this is one of the toughest ovals we go to, so to have that finish is great. We're knocking on the door (of Victory Lane). It's our second second-place finish of the year and third podium. We're getting closer. It's going to come one of these days."
Battle for Third Heating Up
Power and Franchitti hold a 73-point lead on third place Oriol Servia, meaning that they both could sit out a race and still be ahead of third place. The championship is for theirs to fight over at the moment.
But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other good battles for position. Servia, whose comeback with a resurgent Newman/Haas team, has been one of the feel-good stories thus far, currently holds down third and has showed the speed to stay there and possibly challenge for a win. Three points behind him, in fourth, is Scott Dixon. A former champion and Indy 500 winner, he has actually been overshadowed by Franchitti since he joined Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar program in 2009. Dixon will be motivated to prove he shouldn’t play “second fiddle.”
In fifth is the aforementioned Rahal, with Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe only five and nine points behind him respectively. Kanaan, despite his crash on Sunday, has been a bright spot for KV Racing Technology, which continues to see E.J. Viso struggle to stay off the wall. Kanaan, however, has been getting closer to a win with each race and could grab a victory at any time. Briscoe, like Dixon, is motivated to show he isn’t the third wheel within the Penske team, and may also be driving for his seat in that team for 2012 (and, of course, Rahal is only a win away from pressuring Dixon and Servia for third himself).
Also, not to be forgotten are Alex Tagliani, Takuma Sato, and Danica Patrick in eighth, ninth, and tenth, with the likes of Marco Andretti (12th) and Helio Castroneves (13th) poised to challenge them for top 10 spots in the standings.
Dario Franchitti and Will Power will battle for this year’s title, but don’t lose sight of the other battles deeper in the field.