IndyCar title on the line in Las Vegas

IndyCar’s best two drivers don’t particularly like each

other.

Oh, Dario Franchitti and Will Power act friendly in front of the

camera, will make idle chitchat without coming to blows, profess a

mutual respect for each other.

But when it comes to taking a vacation together or even throwing

a few beers back, it’s probably not going happen. Both are just too

competitive, too focused on trying to beat each other on the track

– and that doesn’t stop when they climb out of the cockpit.

”I’m sure if we weren’t competing against each other that we

would be friends – good friends,” said Power, who called

Franchitti a princess earlier in the season. ”You just can’t be

friends with someone that you so fiercely compete with. It’s

impossible. It is for me, anyway. I respect him on the track and

we’re friendly off the track in a way, and that’s just how it’s

always going to be. It’s just the way it is when you’re competing

against someone.”

The rivalry between Franchitti and Power continues Sunday at Las

Vegas Motor Speedway, just up the interstate from the bright lights

of The Strip.

A year ago, Franchitti overtook Power in the season finale at

Homestead, erasing an 11-point deficit to win his second straight

title and third overall.

The roles, along with the locale, are reversed in the

rematch.

Heading into the Las Vegas 300, Franchitti is the one with the

lead this time, up 18 points over Power. After poor qualifying runs

on Friday, the drivers from the top two teams in IndyCar, Chip

Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, will start side-by-side in Row 9,

adding a touch of intrigue to a crowded 34-car field on a 1.5-mile

oval that carries some of the fastest speeds outside of the

Indianapolis 500.

”Whatever happens, it’s going to be a tough race for us on

Sunday,” Franchitti said. ”I’m glad, especially qualifying back

here, that I don’t have to find those 18 points.

Power is the one chasing this year, but he may have a better

chance than when he was leading heading into Homestead last

year.

Known as a street-course specialist – he won he inaugural

IndyCar road course championship in 2010 – he’s made progress on

the ovals, taking a first-third split in the dual races at Texas

while grabbing a couple of other top-10 finishes on such

courses.

Though he doesn’t like the flat-out style of racing at LVMS,

where speeds reached close to 225 mph in practice, Power believes

his oval improvement will give him a shot to catch Franchitti.

”The biggest difference for me this year is just I’m a lot

further along on ovals,” he said. ”I feel as though every time I

go into a weekend I have a chance of winning them. Obviously, we’re

coming from behind this time, but I feel as though we’ve done

everything as a team to prepare for this race. I think that we’re

in very good shape.”

Power’s biggest obstacle may be the man he’s chasing.

While Power can be a little mercurial, Franchitti seemingly

never gets flustered, whether he’s down in points or a race.

The Scotsman won his first IndyCar title in 2007 and, after an

ill-fated run in NASCAR, came from behind to win the past two

IndyCar championships. Adept at ovals and road courses, he’s been

in the top two in points all season, winning four races to get in

position to join IndyCar’s all-time greats if he can drive off with

another title.

”As an old person that has been around for a long time, I know

this guy too well to believe he’s nervous,” said Tony Kanaan, who

earned the pole for Sunday’s race a week after completing the

Ironman Triathlon. ”I think he knows exactly what he needs to

do.”

Whatever happens in Sunday’s finale, this trip to Las Vegas

likely will be deemed a success for the series.

Disappointed with the ratings at Homestead a year ago, IndyCar

CEO Randy Bernard took a gamble on Las Vegas, putting up the

series’ own money to run the race in hopes of attracting more

attention to the sagging sport.

The prelude to the race included a well-received parade lap of

all 34 cars down Las Vegas Blvd. and a celebrity blackjack

tournament with some of the drivers. There’s also a $5 million

prize on the line if Dan Wheldon, who doesn’t have a full-time

ride, can win the finale from the back of the pack.

It also will mark the final race by crossover star Danica

Patrick as a full-time IndyCar driver before she heads off to

NASCAR.

The series will return to Las Vegas for next year’s finale,

possibly beyond.

So, as Patrick put it: ”Viva Las Vegas!”