IRL preview: 200 laps, and almost as many plot lines

Tim Cronin

There are 200 laps in Sunday's Chicagoland Indy 300.

Between the race for the Indy Racing League's series championship in the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway and the questions about who will be driving for whom next year, there are nearly as many plot lines.

First, the battle for the title: Dario Franchitti leads Scott Dixon by three points, with Tony Kanaan, Franchitti's teammate in the four-car Andretti Green Racing stable, 39 points in arrears.

Franchitti had built a large lead by winning three races in a five-race span at midseason, including the Indianapolis 500, but saw Dixon win three straight thereafter and grab the advantage with a win two races ago at Sonoma, Calif. Franchitti took the lead back last week in Detroit, when they were involved with Buddy Rice in a three-car accident with a lap to go. Kanaan won that affair to close the gap and stay within reach of the title in the 17-race series.

"I don't need just to win," Kanaan said of his scenario. "I need to win and have something happen."

As in have both Franchitti and Dixon crash out and finish well down in the race standings. That could boost Kanaan to the top. More likely it will be Franchitti and Dixon in a duel in and around the other cars in the field, including Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick, who run with Franchitti and Kanaan, and Dan Wheldon, the sidekick of Dixon at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Of the three contenders, only Franchitti doesn't have a season title.

"I said this was going to be a hell of a championship battle, and it is," Franchitti said. "We want to win and (Ganassi) wants to win. On the track, we don't take any prisoners, either team. It's really close but that doesn't change our game plan. We just need to win the race or try to be up front and do the best we can to beat Dixon."

Dixon's view is a mirror image of Franchitti's.

"This year, you would have come away thinking we would win the championship easily," Dixon said, considering his consistency. "We've won four races, but Tony's won five and Dario's won three. It's fitting it comes down to the last race. This is great for the series."

It came down to the race at Chicagoland last year as well, when Wheldon and Sam Hornish Jr. tied with 475 points, but Hornish won the title because he won four times to Dixon's two.

Because the other two have season crowns on their résumé, Franchitti is the sentimental favorite, even to Kanaan.

"It's what's missing in his career," Kanaan said.

Next, the question of who will race where next year: Franchitti, who took impromptu flights in his Dallara in consecutive races at Michigan and Kentucky, may run for Andretti's American LeMans Series sports car team in 2007, plus do a one-off defense of his 500 title.

"I hope he'll be my teammate," Kanaan said, "but we have bigger and more important things to work on right now."

Hornish, winner of the 500 in 2006, may jump from Penske Racing's Indy car team to Penske's Nextel Cup operation, especially if his upcoming races in a Busch Series car go well, but he also could still run in next year's 500. That would open a slot in Penske's Indy car operation for Ryan Briscoe, a regular in Penske's ALMS car, but better remembered for surviving a horrific crash in Joliet in 2005.

Then there's Scott Sharp, who drives for Rahal Letterman Racing but, after only one win in the last four seasons, is also eyeing NASCAR.

Silly season, slow in building this season, may get very serious over the weekend and beyond.