The inevitable finally came to pass this weekend at Twin Ring Motegi. Ever since Will Power chopped a 47-point championship lead for Dario Franchitti down to 26 points with his August victory at Infineon Raceway in California, we knew that Power would find a way to vault himself ahead of Franchitti in the final stages of the title fight.
Sure enough, Power is heading to the next race on Oct. 2 at Kentucky Speedway as the IZOD IndyCar Series championship leader after finishing second, while Franchitti’s ambitious move to pass Ryan Briscoe on Lap 25 horribly backfired and wound up forcing him to charge from the rear of the field to eighth after being penalized for avoidable contact.
With two races remaining, Power holds an 11-point lead on Franchitti and all the Scotsman could do on Saturday night was blame himself for that.
"If you win or if you lose, you always look at the championship as a whole,” said Franchitti. “Today, Loudon, Texas, Indy and on and on. You always look at these things, but Will [Power] can do the same with his races.
“That was a mistake today. Shouldn't have made it."
But if you’ve bet on Franchitti to win this championship and are starting to clutch your stuffed Target “Bullseye” dog in fear, then you haven’t been paying attention. Your hero has proven to be one of the best drivers of his generation. He’s been in championship battles as the hunter and as the hunted. He has nothing to prove to anyone except himself.
On the other hand, Power -- who must know that the pressure is on him and not Franchitti -- does. The Australian’s seemingly insurmountable points lead in 2010 crumbled in the homestretch and he found himself missing out on a championship by a measly five markers. He’ll still have the specter of that tough defeat to deal with as he tries to claim his first series title.
“It was a good day for us points-wise in the championship but I'm really not worried about points right now,” Power said. “I just need to keep finishing in front of [Franchitti] the rest of the way and we'll be fine.”
Power has improved on the ovals, as his victory in the second Firestone Twin 275 at Texas can proclaim. But after what happened last season, there’s still a bit of a bad reputation to put to rest. Only a title will do the job.
Franchitti doesn’t have to deal with any of this. He may be down right now, but he’s still the champion and the favorite in this battle.
And if Will Power wants to be “The Man”… Oh, you know the rest.
As you read in our ‘Locks, Drops and Sleepers’ last week, I had James Hinchcliffe pegged to take the point in his Rookie of the Year battle with J.R. Hildebrand at Motegi. But for the second straight race, he ran into more trouble.
Hinchcliffe had been dealing with rear grip problems before making his first pit stop of the day. Then his problems continued when a wheelnut popped out of an air gun during the stop, causing the Canadian to lose valuable track position. After that, it was tough sledding for him and he wound up 15th.
“We got a little spooked after not feeling too good in the warmup and did a very uncharacteristic thing and made a big change to the car,” he said after the race. “Unfortunately, it was the wrong way to go. We dug ourselves our own grave today and it’s unfortunate when you have days like that.
Meanwhile, Hildebrand climbed from 19th starting position and steadily made his way up the pylon to finish eighth. Then, Helio Castroneves was penalized for passing the American in a local yellow zone on a final lap, knocking Castroneves all the way to 22nd place and moving Hildebrand to an official result of seventh.
"We all worked together this weekend to get a car that wasn't necessarily the fastest in the field, but one that was easy to sit back and rip off some laps,” said Hildebrand, who now holds a 14-point lead in the Rookie of the Year race. “And for today's race, that's what you needed.”
Just as Power and Franchitti are having a great battle for the championship, so are Hildebrand and Hinchcliffe for top rookie honors.
It may not be quite as buzzworthy, but “Captain America” vs. “The Mayor” will certainly bear watching at Kentucky and later on at Las Vegas.
Finally, a quick word about the last Indy Japan. You know, the official title of this event was “Indy Japan: THE FINAL.” But let’s hope “FINAL” doesn’t mean forever.
The Japanese fans came out once again in full force to say goodbye to INDYCAR, which was great to see. They have an immense fervor, they’re very proud of their countrymen (see the giant crowds that followed native son Takuma Sato) and this weekend, they helped prove to outsiders that while their nation is still battling to return to normalcy after the deadly March 11 earthquake, they’re making progress on that quest.
The Indy Japan legacy is coming to a close due to the current grim economic realities. Let’s hope that if and when those realities are brighter, INDYCAR will consider returning to such a great place for the sport.
For now, “seeing a race at Motegi” will remain on my list, waiting to be checked off one day.