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!''