JOLIET, Ill. – Crashes in four straight races have left Dario Franchitti in a vulnerable position heading into the IndyCar Series season-finale with his first open-wheel title in sight.
Franchitti goes into Sunday’s PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway holding a tenuous three-point lead over Scott Dixon, the 2003 series champion who has come on strong in the second half of the 17-race season.
And it’s apparently going to be the farewell to IndyCar for Franchitti, who is expected to join Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR Nextel Cup team in 2008.
But, if the 34-year-old Scotsman is feeling any pressure, you couldn’t tell from watching him Saturday at the suburban Chicago track.
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Outside his car and between team meetings, the Andretti Green Racing driver spent his time riding around the garage area on his motorbike, stopping to chat with friends, sign autographs and pose for pictures with an unconcerned smile.
“I’m pretty relaxed about it because, you know, with winning the (Indianapolis) 500 this year, I think it’s taken some pressure off my shoulders,” Franchitti said. “I think I was maybe more nervous three or four races ago than I am now.
“Now it’s pretty simple. It’s just like doing a one-off race. The result of the race is what counts. If I finish ahead of Scott, I’m looking good. If Scott finishes ahead of me, he’s probably looking good.”
In his two previous races on the 11/2-mile Chicagoland oval, Franchitti finished 20th and 12th. Worse, the last two times Franchitti raced on ovals this year, he wound up in high-flying crashes.
At Michigan, the Scotsman was leading when he touched wheels with Dan Wheldon and held his breath as his car pirouetted on its nose and landed upside down.
A week later, at Kentucky, Franchitti crossed the finish line after a mediocre eighth-place finish and, unaware the race was over, ran over the slowing car of Kosuke Matsuura and took another flight. This time, he slammed into the wall.
Franchitti, who walked away from both crashes with only bruises, said the memory of those scary crashes isn’t going to slow him down.
“I think I’ll take the same risks that I’ve always taken,” he said. “I’ll use the same judgment that I did before the last two oval races, just do what I’ve always done.”
The 27-year-old Dixon, who drives for Ganassi Racing, is just as relaxed as Franchitti.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned in those championship battles, you have to treat it as a normal race weekend,” the New Zealander said. “I think any time you start overemphasizing or looking into things a little too much, it just puts a drain on you, maybe adds a little more stress, may pushes you into mistakes.
I think the biggest thing for me is just to keep it as a normal race weekend,” Dixon said. “All is going to play out after the last lap. There’s not too much you can do about it.”
Dixon has surged into this title chase with four wins in the last seven races, and with the help of Franchitti’s misfortunes, including crashes in the road races at Sonoma and Detroit the last two weeks.
“It’s been a very tough season with quite a few ups and downs, some good positives for all of us,” Dixon said. “There’s a lot of pressure on, I think, for a season with the kind of teams that we drive for, the pressure that we put on ourselves to do well, to put ourselves into these situations.
“I’m just looking forward to this weekend being over. However it plays out, it’s going to be the best for one person. They were meant to win.”
Tony Kanaan, Andretti’s teammate, winner of three of the last four races and the only other driver with even an outside shot at the title, agreed.
“I think it’s going to be exciting for the fans,” said Kanaan, who trails Franchitti by 39 points. “To win a championship, you got to do (a better) job than everybody else during the year, but you got to be lucky, too. I guess luck’s going to play a lot in this race. It is what it is. We’ll take it.”