Title Cliffhanger

Once again, the IndyCar Series championship comes down to the final race of the season, with Dario Franchitti leading Scott Dixon by a mere three points entering Sunday’s finale at Chicagoland Speedway.

It should be a terrific race; expect to see a lot of passing and two- and three-wide racing, followed by a fantastic finish. Chicagoland has hosted some of the closest finishes in IndyCar Series history, including the record, Sam Hornish’s over Al Unser Jr. by .0024 seconds in 2002. In fact, the widest margin of victory was 1.4609 seconds, when Jaques Lazier beat Hornish in 2001.

To win the title, all Franchitti needs to do is finish ahead of Dixon. It’s a more complicated scenario for Dixon. While the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver wins the title with a victory, or if he leads the most laps and finishes ahead of the Andretti Green Racing pilot. Dixon would lose the title by one point if he finishes second — and Franchitti finish third and lead the most laps.

Tony Kanaan also enters the event with miniscule hopes of winning a second IndyCar Series championship. To do so, he must both win and lead the most laps — and then have Franchitti finish 16th or worse, and Dixon 13th or worse.

Adding a new wrinkle to the finale is the series’ second-largest field of the season. The expected 22 starters were topped only by the 33 at the Indianapolis 500. Milka Duno has sat out the last three races, Marty Roth hasn’t raced since Indy, Indy Pro Series graduate Hideki Mutoh makes his series debut and P.J. Chesson makes his first start of the year.

Last year, Ganassi made it a one-two sweep, with Dan Wheldon edging Dixon by .1897 seconds. Hornish finished third, on Dixon’s rear wing, to claim the title.

Anticipation is probably at an all-time high in the paddock, with tension building in recent events. Franchitti flipped at Michigan International Speedway in August, landing on Dixon’s car to eliminate both contenders. One week later, Franchitti drove into Kosuke Matsuura’s car after taking the checkered flag at Kentucky Speedway.

Franchitti rebounded with a standout performance at Infineon Raceway, but lost his chances of victory when he tangled with teammate Marco Andretti after the latter’s final pit stop. Dixon went on to win, with Kanaan blocking to protect Franchitti’s third-place finish.

Last weekend, Dixon and Franchitti tangled on the penultimate lap while battling for second behind Kanaan in the Detroit Indy Grand Prix on the streets of Belle Isle.

If the championship isn't enough, there are plenty of other good story lines:

• Danica Patrick is coming off a career-best second place finish at Detroit, and a very competitive run at Michigan. This is her best opportunity to score career victory No. 1.

• Andretti Green’s fourth driver, Marco Andretti, is looking for a strong finish to a frustrating season. While he’s finished in the top five six times — including a pair of seconds — Andretti finished no better than 15th in the remaining 11 races.

• Andretti won’t be getting any sympathy cards from Team Penske for his struggles. After having both Hornish and Helio Castroneves won four races each last season — with Hornish claiming the championship — the two drivers won only one race apiece this season. Castroneves did manage a record seven poles, compounding his race day struggles.

• Buddy Rice had his best showing at Detroit since his 2005 practice crash at Indianapolis. He was running a solid second when he ran out of ethanol on the second-last lap, setting up the Dixon-Franchitti shunt. That may be signs of better things to come from Dreyer & Reinbold in 2008.

It will be tough for the championship to be closer than last year, when Hornish and Wheldon ended the year tied in the points.

Dixon has one championship to his credit, winning in 2003, while Franchitti lost the CART title on a tie-breaker to Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999.

If nice guys finish first, this one will end in a tie. For Franchitti, it’s been an impressive year of battling back from setbacks. For Dixon, he’s enjoying a career season. Franchitti already has the Indianapolis 500 trophy on his mantle. Pack up the IndyCar Series trophy for delivery to New Zealand — watch Dixon to win the title by a nosecone.

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