For the last two seasons, defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti and Will Power have been side-by-side and nose-to-tail.
Franchitti, the model of all-around consistency, and Power, the immensely talented upstart, have engaged in some great battles for IndyCar supremacy. Their fights for the 2010 and 2011 championships went down to the last race and while Franchitti managed to claim both of those crowns to become a four-time series champ, the rivalry looked set to rage on even with the additions of new cars and engine competition.
Going into the year, the script seemed pretty cut and dry: Considering the more equal playing field and the bigger lean in the schedule this season to road/street course racing, it would appear Power has his best chance to finally win a title. But Franchitti will come out of the blocks strong and do his damnedest to show that he’d still be the best in the paddock even if INDYCAR had chosen roofless Smart Cars over the Dallara DW12.
All of that could still happen eventually, but it sure didn’t happen at Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The two men that have defined dominance in the series for the last couple of seasons instead found themselves in places they aren’t used to being in: Away from the front.
Power had been his usual fast self around St. Petersburg and started on the pole Sunday, but was the earliest of the three Team Penske drivers to pit at Lap 12 as Katherine Legge’s No. 6 TrueCar-Dragon Racing Lotus came to a complete stop on the front stretch with electrical issues. But shortly after the yellow came out for her, the pits closed and the leaders opted to stay on track – knocking Power back to 11th for the subsequent restart.
The situation got worse when Power was hung out on the outside on said restart, falling back six spots to 17th. From there, the Australian had to fight, scrap and claw for the rest of the afternoon to pull off a seventh-place finish in the No. 12 Verizon-Team Penske Chevrolet.
“We just got shuffled back a bit there after the first pit stop and we just couldn't make up the ground we needed,” Power said about his day. “It was very tough to pass. We were able to gain some track position toward the end and it's good to finish seventh. We'll be back at it again next weekend at Barber [Motorsports Park].”
Power can certainly take some solace from his late charge, but it was still a strange day for him.
The same can be said for Franchitti, who faded to 13th after his No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda ran out running out of fuel on the final lap.
Like Power, Franchitti was never a real factor in the race. Starting eighth, the Scotsman rose as high as third but only on the strength of green flag pit stops in the first third of the race. Most of the time, he hovered around the 8th-10th place range before going dry on Lap 100.
And also like Power, he looked ahead to what he hopes will be better results at the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (Apr. 1, 2 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network/IMS Radio Network/SiriusXM Ch. 94).
“You have those times where [the fuel situation’s] close and you get across the start/finish line, and sometimes you don't,” Franchitti said. “We didn't have the best day in the Target Honda today overall, but we'll do some work and be back strong in Barber."
Instead of Power and Franchitti being the frontrunners we’re accustomed to seeing them as, that status went to their Penske and Ganassi teammates on Sunday.
Helio Castroneves won his first race since 2010 at Twin Ring Motegi, and he and Ryan Briscoe were two of four Chevrolet-powered pilots in the top five at race’s end. Meanwhile, Scott Dixon of TCGR was the lone Honda man in that group after netting a solid second place finish that broke his recent string of bad luck in the streets of St. Pete.
Barber’s natural-terrain road course is quite different from the waterfront boulevards that make up St. Pete’s 1.8-mile circuit. Will the results be different as well?
One thing’s for sure: Power and Franchitti will be out to make sure everything goes back to the “normal” they’ve created.
Chris Estrada maintains IndyRacingRevolution.com and has covered sports at all levels for multiple print and digital outlets. He has written for INDYCAR Nation since 2011 and can be reached via e-mail (email@example.com) and on Twitter (@estradawriting).