[Images: Chris Graythen, Nick Laham
/Getty | Alan Diaz, Terry Renna/AP]
When Dario Franchitti won the pole, it meant he was only 11 points behind Power heading into the race. There were a number of scenarios in which Franchitti could win, but the one he wanted to see play out was to stay at the front the whole race. That would give him an extra two points for leading the most laps and enough of a gap to second place that even if Power finished second , he couldn't beat Dario in the points race.
A couple of interesting subplots were also unfolding. For only the second time in IndyCar history, five women were in the field. One of them was in a title fight of sorts herself. Alex Lloyd, who had qualified 22nd, was leading Simona de Silvestro in the Rookie of the Year battle by 18 points. Danica Patrick was just 22 points out of the top ten. If Patrick couldn't make up the difference, it would be the first time since her rookie season that she hadn't finished in the top ten in the season points race. She qualified 11th and needed to finish well ahead of Justin Wilson to nab tenth.
From the drop of the green, the fireworks started right away. Well, technically, those were sparks coming off the cars, not fireworks; the fuel-laden cars bottoming out around the turns created quite a show. Franchitti and teammate Scott Dixon held the first two spots as points leader Power fell back a bit from his 3rd place qualifying position. As has been the case all season, Tony Kanaan was the biggest mover in the early going. The Miami resident thrilled the hometown crowd by going from 8th to 3rd in the early going.
In fact, things got interesting when TK slipped past Dixon for second. The game plan was to have Dario out front the whole time, with Scott serving as a buffer to keep the Team Penske challengers at bay. But what about Andretti Autosports' drivers? Were they going to play the part of spoiler for Franchitti. Before Kanaan could catch Dario, however, Mario Moraes brought out the first yellow of the night. No contact, just a mechanical issue that left Moraes stalled in a precarious position. That meant the drivers could make their first round of stops.
Kanaan was one of the biggest losers on that pit exit. The running order when racing went back to green was Franchitti, Penske's Ryan Briscoe, Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Kanaan, Power, E.J. Viso, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Dan Wheldon. Briscoe got a good jump though and was able to get past Dario on the second lap back under green. As they circulated, Ana Beatriz was dangerously slow on the lower apron, causing Danica Patrick (among others) to juke to avoid her. Beatriz had come out of the pits late and hung back to let the field pass. As they made it by, she accelerated up to speed but the bumpy section and her full fuel tanks didn't make for a good pairing. She lost downforce and went hard into the wall. That brought out caution number 2. Luckily for Dario, he had just re-passed Briscoe before the yellow flew.
When green-flag racing resumed, everybody wanted the lead. Briscoe and Franchitti were banging wheels, swapping the lead turn by turn. Kanaan was right with them, making it a three-wide battle for several laps. Behind that trio were Castroneves, Dixon and Viso mirroring the front row. On Lap 60, TK and Briscoe both slipped past Dario, the title contender losing clean air and a lot of momentum. His teammate took advantage, and Dixon was able to slingshot past not only Dario but Kanaan and Briscoe as well. The championship battle was getting interesting.
After several hectic laps, things settled down and Franchitti found himself out front again with Kanaan chasing, followed closely by Dixon and Will Power. With so much riding on teamwork, it wasn't surprising to see some drivers make their second stops out of sequence. Briscoe, Kanaan and Franchitti came in around Lap 96. Franchitti wound up leading again once the rest of the field pitted.
On Lap 117, Franchitti locked up the two point bonus for leading the most laps and it looked like he might be willing to let Tony Kanaan by to save fuel and ease the pressure a bit. But it didn't happen. If the race had ended at that point, Franchitti would have won the championship by nine points over Power, who was holding steady in 4th. On Lap 135, Will Power brushed the wall as he tried to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay, bringing out another caution. Would this be it for Power's hopes of retaining his title lead?
Everyone dove into the pits as soon as they opened and Will Power's hopes were crushed. His right rear suspension was broken, and although his team may have been able to swap out fresh parts, he had difficulty lining up in his stall. As the seconds ticked away, the team decided to pull Power's car behind the wall to get the suspension fixed. They would send him back out, not wanting to give up hope, but things now looked very good for Franchitti. You could see the anger, sadness and frustration in Power's eyes as Team Penske got to work. Power lost five laps as his crew made the repairs. Still, there were still some 50 laps remaining and anything could happen.
Before the race could get back to green, however, Power was back into the pits, his car's suspension damaged perhaps more badly than originally thought. The field went back to green on Lap 152 with a running order of Dixon, Franchitti, Andretti, Wheldon, Castroneves, Kanaan, Meira, Patrick, Briscoe and Hunter-Reay. As odd as it seemed, Power could finish no worse than 25th, so Dario still needed to finish tenth or better to take the crown. At this point, he was in 3rd as Marco Andretti moved past him and Dixon for the lead.
On Lap 166, another yellow flew as someone lost an endplate on track. That gave the field a chance to make a final pit stop to carry them until the end, but it would still be close for several of them if the rest of the race was run under green. When the pace car came back in, it was Dixon, Castroneves, Kanaan, Patrick, Wheldon, Meira, Andretti, Franchitti, Briscoe and Rahal. Even with Power tied up in the pits, Franchitti was only five points ahead in the standings and couldn't afford to lose many more positions by the race's conclusion.
Two false starts made things even more interesting because racers who might have been close at the end were able to save that crucial bit of extra fuel. Finally back under green on Lap 174 and it was Castroneves, Kanaan and Dixon in the top three spots. With 25 to go, it was Dixon, Kanaan, Patrick and Castroneves. Milka Duno ended her season a lap later when she got up into the wall. The ensuing caution guaranteed that everyone would be good on fuel the rest of the way. The instant replay showed that Franchitti was almost taken out in the melee, which would have given the title to Power. Dario narrowly avoided elimination, though, and was set to make the run to the trophy when the green came back out with 20 laps remaining.
Unbelievably, Franchitti was in ninth, the last car on the lead lap, one spot ahead of where he needed to be to clinch it with ten to go – a nerve-wracking scenario. His teammate, meanwhile, was pulling away from the pack out front, Dixon separating himself from the battle for second between Danica, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. At the checkers it was Dixon holding on for his third win of the season, Danica nipping Kanaan for second with Briscoe, Castroneves, Meira, Andretti, Franchitti, Wheldon and Rahal rounding out the top ten. The 8th place finish was enough to give Dario Franchitti his third championship by just five points over the hard-luck Will Power. Still, it was an fantastic season for Power, his comeback from that potentially career-ending injury complete.
That concludes the 2010 IZOD IndyCar season. The 2011 championship kicks off with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 27. Until then, we'll keep you abreast of any and all IndyCar news that develops during the coming silly season.