Although Dario Franchitti hasn’t won an IndyCar race since last year’s Indianapolis 500, he’s in prime position to snap that unpleasant streak when he starts on the pole Sunday in an excellent Honda at Sonoma Raceway.
But if he can help Scott Dixon by stepping off the gas a bit, Franchitti would be happy to follow team orders.
Franchitti won’t put his personal success ahead of Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s fortunes. That means Dixon will get every chance to gain ground on IndyCar points leader Helio Castroneves (453 points), who leads second-place Dixon (422) with five races to go.
"I want to win the race, obviously," Franchitti said after turning a lap in 1 minute, 17.5271 seconds to win his 33rd career pole. "But the big picture — and we say this every year in our team — we sit in the first meeting of the year, and our two goals are to win the 500 and win the championship. We didn’t win the 500, so we’ve got to win the championship. Scott is our best shot at that, and whatever I can do to help him win that championship, I will."
Will Power also hasn’t won an IndyCar race since early last season in Sao Paulo, yet he feels the same way about Team Penske teammate Castroneves, who needs a strong finish in the waning weeks of the IndyCar season to earn his first championship.
"Anything to help Helio win the championship," said Power, who finished second in each of the last three years.
Dixon finished qualifying in second place at 1:17.7196, while Castroneves starts back in fifth behind Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. That distance isn’t much, but it’s a bit tougher to make up at Sonoma Raceway, a 2.385-mile road course in Northern California wine country.
Passing is uncommonly difficult on the winding, 12-turn Sonoma track, which makes qualifying particularly important. Four pole-sitters have won the race, and nobody has moved up to win from farther than fifth.
It’s tough even under ideal conditions, but the Bay Area wind has been unpredictable this week, its direction changing 180 degrees over the course of many afternoons. The wind also blows Sonoma sand onto the track, creating unpredictable tire conditions and general uncertainty with every turn.
"It was all over the place," Castroneves said after qualifying. "You really have to expect the unexpected all the time — and then the sun is really beautiful right now, and actually no (wind). It was very difficult for everyone."
Charlie Kimball continued his impressive recent work with a sixth-place run Saturday, easily his highest qualifying position in Sonoma. Ganassi’s Kimball earned his first career victory in IndyCar’s most recent race in Ohio.
"The wind does totally change the track," said Power, who set the track record in qualifying last year. "Our car was quite tough. I’m pretty happy. I think the Ganassi guys have definitely got a leg up on everybody here."
Franchitti earned his third pole at Sonoma and his fourth pole of the season. The Scot said his team spent a somber week working on the race after the recent deaths of Chip Ganassi’s father, Floyd, and the wife of former Ganassi engineer Andy Brown.
"It’s obviously been a very tough week," Franchitti said. "We’re pretty focused on bringing a good result for the team."
While the top two teams will do anything to help their top two drivers, nobody is conceding the IndyCar series title to the two front-runners just yet. Five drivers are within 111 points of Castroneves, including Andretti Autosport’s Hunter-Reay in third place and Franchitti in fifth.
Castroneves said he’s feeling fine after spraining his neck and cutting his shin when he crashed a stock car during practice on a street course in his native Brazil two weeks ago. He insists he’s in top condition to handle the demanding Sonoma track — as does defending Sonoma champion Ryan Briscoe, who qualified well back in 22nd place for Panther Racing in his final IndyCar event of the season.