The big hitters in any series are expected to run at the front. They neither make the costly miscues that result in DNF’s, nor do they catch the bad breaks that seem to plague others (see Graham Rahal’s season of misfortune).
Yet, every so often, you a get a season in which the fates just seem to have their way with everyone, including those who seemed immune. In such a season, nothing is ever as it seems and the complexion can change from week to week, or even lap to lap.
Such a season is playing out in 2011. Unquestionably, Dario Franchitti and Will Power entered the year as the overwhelming title favorites. The opening round of the season in St. Pete proved as much. Power won the pole, Franchitti won the race. The stage appeared set for the two to battle it out week after week for the championship, with their skill and precision destined to be at the forefront, and mistakes assumed to be an afterthought.
After all, both are enormously talented behind the wheel and each drives for a team that embodies professionalism. Power’s Team Penske could perhaps be the goldest of the Gold Standards while Franchitti’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing has enjoyed a 15-year run of a success that could rival anyone’s. Mistakes and bad luck simply weren’t going to be a part of the equation.
Yet, mistakes and bad luck have been the very elements that have defined this year’s title chase. From the onset, each driver and team just can’t seem to chase that proverbial “black cloud” away. At Indianapolis, each saw team errors doom their efforts (Power’s pit crew with a botched pit stop and Franchitti’s team with a botched fuel strategy, both in the race and in qualifying).
Both rebounded nicely to split wins in Texas, but Franchitti also caught a tough break when he drew the 28th starting spot for race two of the doubleheader. He would bounce back in Milwaukee to take victory.
In Iowa, Lady Luck turned her wrath on Power in the form of a pit road accident with Charlie Kimball and hard crash in turn two, denting his own title hopes. They would take another hit in Toronto when Dario Franchitti tipped Power into a spin, dropping him through the field before contact with Alex Tagliani ended his day.
Despite victory in Edmonton, Power was unable make more headway and, after an untimely caution left him to finish 14th in Mid-Ohio, the title was all Franchitti’s to lose.
Then, it was the Scotsman’s turn to falter. Dominating in Loudon, New Hampshire, he spun off the front of Takuma Sato on a restart and smacked the inside wall on the front straightaway, damaging suspension and breathing new life into Power. Another mistake at Twin Ring Motegi (an ill-timed attempt to pass Ryan Briscoe resulted in contact, with Franchitti only able to finish eighth) firmly planted all of the momentum in Power’s corner.
Yet again, though, fortunes shifted, this time in Kentucky. If Ana Beatriz hadn’t initially stalled on her first pit stop, she would have exited the pits long before Power came in for his stop. But, as fate would have it, her car did stall and she was then released into the side of Power. Fortunately, she didn’t puncture his radiator. Unfortunately, their contact punched a hole in the sidepod of Power’s car, taking the speed of it and leaving him to finish 19th while Franchitti finished second.
To sum it all up, each has controlled his own destiny at various points only to lose that control shortly thereafter.
This all leaves us to enter the Izod INDYCAR World Championships with Franchitti back in the position he was in entering Loudon: the points leader with a relatively comfortable lead. Conventional wisdom says that it’s his title to lose. But, if conventional wisdom had its way, none the aforementioned incidents would have happened.
Franchitti’s 18-point may seem like a lot, but it actually isn’t. Hypothetically, if Power grabs another pole and then goes on the lead the most laps and win in Las Vegas (as he was on his way to doing in Kentucky), he will gain a minimum of 13 points, assuming Franchitti finishes second, knocking the deficit to five. If Franchitti were to finish third in that scenario, then the two would be tied, with Power holding a tiebreaker based on wins.
We might be led to believe that Franchitti holds all the cards as we enter Las Vegas. But, as we’ve seen all too often, all of the momentum can change hands quicker than anyone can imagine. Until the checkered flag falls on Sunday, it’s not over.