Battle for title tightens between Dixon, Franchitti

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Have we seen a foreshadow of things to come in the IndyCar Series championship race?
Target Chip Ganassi Racing delivered another thrashing on Saturday night as Scott Dixon led Dario Franchitti to the checkered flag in the SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway. Meanwhile, their main rivals at Team Penske saw both Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves crash out of the race before the finish. With his second-place finish, Franchitti took over the points lead by one point over Dixon, who now holds second place by 25 points over former leader Briscoe. Castroneves is even farther behind, 54 points off the lead. With how tight the battle has been between Ganassi and Penske this season, Richmond may wind up being the race that turns the season. This time, the usual short-track attrition bit a pair of title contenders as well as the backmarkers. Now the second half of the season beckons with five of the final nine events on road and street courses — including the next three events in July at Watkins Glen, the streets of Toronto and Edmonton's City Center Airport. Team Penske is far from gone, but the advantage is with the "Bull's-eye Boys." Don't expect Franchitti or Dixon to rest on that though. "It's going to be a tough rest of the season," Franchitti said after his sixth top-five finish of the year pushed him to the top of the title hunt. "We're going to have to try and win every race because Scott's going to be there. The Penske guys are going to be there. (Third-place finisher Graham Rahal's) is going to be there. The AGR cars are going to be there. And especially on the road courses, a bunch of other people. So it's going to be pretty exciting. We just got to, each week, get the maximum we can. "I think to be leading the points is nice, and the stretch of results that we've had is nice. But it can turn in an instant. We just got to take each week as it comes. Each week is a whole new thing. Nothing carries over. I think the team is very experienced, which helps. As I say, we'll just keep on it." The next three races in July play right into Dixon's hands. The New Zealander has claimed three of the IndyCar Series' four runnings at Watkins Glen and notched two top-fives in his CART days at Toronto (2001, 2002). He's also the defending champion at the Edmonton airport course. As for Franchitti, he's recorded two top-three runs in his IndyCar career at the Glen and a CART victory at Toronto in 1999. Either way you slice it, both men will be very tough to beat in the weeks ahead. "Any time you can make a gain on the Penskes, you've definitely got to take that and try to run with it," Dixon said. "It's not too often that they make mistakes like they did (Saturday night). I don't know what happened with Helio, maybe he got caught up with some traffic there. And Ryan, I think, just spun coming out of (Turn) 2. We've had some bad races at the start of the year and obviously, Helio started a little bit later. "We just got to hope that we can continue to be a little bit more consistent than them and gain points when we need to. (It) was a big gain for us and it could be a pivotal point of the season." Meanwhile, Team Penske will have to regroup and find a way to make sure this night won't be a game-changer. On Lap 27, Briscoe wound up spinning out and crashing by his lonesome in Turn 2, an event that seemed to shock him. "Wow, that was totally unexpected," the Australian said. "I am not sure exactly what happened. I was fighting some understeer and it just looks like, I don't even know, I was just coming back to the throttle and it snapped on me. It took me totally by surprise." The same spot proved to be the end for Castroneves as well later on. On Lap 248, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion crashed after he got caught up with lapped traffic. "Things were going real good, but the guy in front of me slowed down very much and I did not have anywhere to go," he said. "I avoided him but unfortunately, I ended up hitting the wall. I did not have much room. I don't know what happened, but everyone slowed down suddenly." And just like that, the season may have been altered for good. It will be critical for Briscoe and Castroneves to come up with victories in July to hack into the Ganassi edge — or if either Dixon or Franchitti have their own foul-ups, re-take the edge for themselves. If they can't, then those bull's-eyes on the sidepods of Dixon and Franchitti will continue to get smaller and smaller as they pull farther away. The war for the title starts now.
Tagged: Dario Franchitti

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