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2009 IndyCar title chase lacks intrigue

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For the 10th time in 14 seasons, the IndyCar Series will have its championship settled in the final race. Over the years in these last events, we've seen these title fights end with a young American team taking down arguably the best squad in the business (2002), a battle among five drivers (2003), a tie-breaker (2006) and somebody losing the crown by running out of fuel on the last lap (2007). Where does the 2009 edition stack up? Here's what we know going into Saturday's grand finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway: Scott Dixon, the reigning champion, is five points ahead of Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti and eight points ahead of Team Penske pilot Ryan Briscoe.
Dixon is the defending champion at HMS, but Briscoe and Penske teammate Helio Castroneves have often had the edge on superspeedways this year. That being said, Dixon holds the tiebreaker (most wins) with five victories on the season. And what's more, Briscoe can win the race and still lose the title. With the points battle being so close, this will surely go down as one of the greatest title fights ever, right? Well, maybe. It's stating the obvious that the utter dominance of Ganassi and Penske this season is a testament to how good they are and what sets them apart from the rest in the paddock. In a series where everybody has the same equipment, they've still managed to be miles ahead of the pack. The only time they've been beaten this year was at Watkins Glen, when Justin Wilson got Dale Coyne his first victory after 25 years in the business. But considering road and street courses supposedly level the playing field (and they do — to a point), the Big Two have not allowed anybody else outside their little club to best them in 2009, save for Wilson. Remember when Ed Carpenter lost by a few feet to Briscoe at Kentucky in August? Considering where he and his Vision Racing team had been before that Saturday night, he should have been happy as a clam. But he wasn't. "I think I would have been happier with second if he was 15 car lengths in front of me, ran away with it," Carpenter said after that race. "It's a little harder to swallow when you're that close. ... It's not every day that a non-Penske, Ganassi (or Andretti Green Racing) team gets that close to winning on one of these tracks." There are only so many opportunities to show up the Big Two and grant fans a temporary reprieve from the red cars' supremacy. Now, we've seen points races in the past where two teams were whipping everybody else, so maybe it is best not to complain too loudly. These things happen. But when you have the current reign of Ganassi and Penske, then throw in the boring oval races in the first half of the year (particularly at Kansas, Indianapolis, Texas and Richmond) that temporarily robbed the IRL of its mojo, it's safe to argue that 2009 may not be regarded as a classic. Instead, this season may wind up being looked back upon as one that was up-and-down — a condition that works against the points race among Dixon, Franchitti and Briscoe. You also have to look at the combatants themselves. There's a rivalry there between the teams, but it's one marked with respect. There's no animosity. Both teams have been complimentary toward each other, and while it's clear they both want to beat one another, this certainly isn't a Yankees-Red Sox or Cowboys-Redskins type of thing. For better or worse, it's no hype, all business. "Although Mike (Hull, Ganassi managing director) yells at me once in a while, I think the key to that really is watching not what Mike and I talk about or what the drivers look at each other and talk about," Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said about the rivalry. "It's more I think you can see it through the body language of the teams. I think that over the years of racing each other and being in that close proximity, especially in those pit boxes ... those kind of guys that are leading their peers there, those are the ones that have a pretty huge mutual respect for one another. And I think that, at the end of the day, they know what it takes to compete at this level." If there's any major hook that can draw interest to this finale, it's that Briscoe has the chance to defeat the team that gave him his big break and then had to leave him behind. A tough 2005 season for Ganassi helped lead the team to downsize from three cars to two, and that left Briscoe the odd man out. We didn't see him in full-time capacity again until three seasons later — with Ganassi's greatest adversary. But if you think Hull has an impetus of some kind to beat one of his former drivers besides that of the championship, think again. "Had we been able to continue with three cars, I think that he would still be driving here," Hull said. "He has enormous ability, and I'm a great fan of Ryan Briscoe's. "I hope we end up in front of him at Homestead on Saturday night, but he has the ability to get there." So there you have it — a title race that has gone largely by the book appears set to end as such. For some, the final 200 laps on Saturday will be a thrilling conclusion to an exciting battle, while others wonder if the last race will make 2009 worth their while. One thing is certain: It'll be interesting to see how this title fight will be debated among fans in the future.
Tagged: Dario Franchitti

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