JOLIET, Ill. – It will be four-against-two Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway when Andretti Green Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing square off in the deciding race of the IndyCar Series championship.
Heading into the season-ending PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300, Andretti Green driver Dario Franchitti holds a three-point lead over Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon, while Tony Kanaan, another Andretti Green driver, has a long-shot chance at the title, trailing Franchitti by 39 points.
Their teammates, Andretti Green drivers Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick, and Ganassi’s Dan Wheldon, also could come into play Sunday by providing a block on a rival at the appropriate time, or by letting a teammate past.
Or even, in the most extreme case, causing a crash that takes out one of the contenders.
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Last month at Sonoma, Franchitti was struggling with a damaged car after a crash with Andretti, losing positions quickly. Kanaan, right behind his friend, not only refused to pass Franchitti, but did his best to keep Sam Hornish Jr. behind him to the finish to preserve Franchitti’s third-place finish.
After that race, Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, said, “I had to protect Dario as much as I could over the final few laps. The guy has done a lot for me over the years and I was thinking about the team.”
Last week at Detroit, Dixon collided with Buddy Rice when the latter ran out of fuel late in the race. As Dixon spun, he hit Franchitti, who managed to go on to the finish and regain the series lead.
Team co-owner Michael Andretti fumed, saying that he thought Dixon had tried to take Franchitti out on purpose. But Dixon has steadfastly denied that charge, and Franchitti isn’t buying it.
“No, I don’t think Scott did that on purpose,” Franchitti said. “I think he was out of control and I think we got a little lucky to get past it and finish. I’m leading the points and that’s all I’m thinking about.”
Still, the tight points race could certainly lend itself to what is often referred to as team orders.
“I think the relationship that (our) drivers have is really special, all four of them,” Michael Andretti said. “If there’s a way that one can help the other in some way, I’m sure they will. But there are no orders.
“I think that’s pretty evident in the race (at Sonoma) where Dario and Marco got together. They were both going for the win. We have no orders to take any wins away from anybody.”
Andretti added that the focus this week is to try to get Franchitti his first open-wheel championship.
“Actually, at this point, what we need to do with Dario in particular is just if we can finish in front of Scott, then we win the championship,” he said. “So, in that way, I don’t see there’s much where the teammates can really help out that much.”
Ganassi said he would issue no team orders, but that teammates could certainly affect the outcome.
“If a driver wants to insert himself in the championship chase, I don’t think it’s difficult to do,” Ganassi said. “You have to understand you’re driving these cars at 200 (miles per hour) and if you want to affect the outcome of a particular lap, I don’t think it’s that difficult to do.
“A lot of times it’s unseen to an untrained eye or without looking at the throttle trace (data) or the steering wheel position. ...Oftentimes, not till after a race do you hear the real story from the guys that were in the seats.”
Even so, Ganassi said he doesn’t expect anything untoward on Sunday.
“I don’t think any of the drivers want anybody to point the finger at them all winter, saying they changed the outcome of the championship,” he noted. “I would think that would be something that would be pretty heavy on the driver’s shoulders.”