Four races into the IZOD IndyCar Series, Penske Racing appeared invincible and a sluggish start by Target Chip Ganassi Racing had many wondering if the organization’s run of four consecutive championship titles was in serious jeopardy.
Penske Racing, buoyed by its new Chevrolet engines, won the first four races with Helio Castroneves winning the season opener at St. Petersburg and then Will Power taking Alabama, Long Beach and Sao Paulo, respectively, to become just the fourth driver in series history to accomplish the feat.
Meanwhile at Target Chip Ganassi, Honda appeared to be trailing Chevrolet in horsepower and three-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti and 2008 series champ Scott Dixon were having their struggles as they uncharacteristically combined for five finishes of 13th or worse among their eight starts at that juncture.
Franchitti had three finishes of 13th or worse in the first four races and found himself 10th in the championship and already 98 points behind the leader, Power. Dixon was faring a bit better – thanks to opening the season with a pair of runner-up finishes – but he followed with consecutive finishes of 17th or worse to drop him to sixth in the championship, 71 points behind Power.
"It's not been a great start to the year," Dixon said in early May. "I think we've shown promise in a few areas and are definitely suffering in some others the last two races. We really shot ourselves in the foot. We're looking to rebound in the Indy 500 and it will be the first time on ovals to race the cars again.”
And, boy, did they ever rebound.
With Penske and the Chevrolet teams favored to take the Indianapolis 500, it was Franchitti drinking the milk once again and Dixon finishing second in the first oval race of the season. Target Chip Ganassi rode that momentum into this past weekend’s Streets of Belle Isle event in Detroit, where a dominant Dixon won, Franchitti finished second and Honda earned its first podium sweep of the season with Simon Pagenaud taking third.
“There’s no doubt that the last two weekends have been a big jump for us obviously in the championship and I think team morale and everything,” Dixon said. “As Dario said, we go into every weekend the same; we try our best and we try and achieve the maximum that we can and I’ll continue on and hopefully we can ride a bit of a wave.”
As the IZOD IndyCar Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday night’s Firestone 550, Dixon and Franchitti have quickly closed the gap on Power. Dixon has moved into second in the championship, 26 points back, while Franchitti has surged to fourth, just 56 points behind.
“It’s going to be tough,” Franchitti said. “Will (Power) has done a hell of a job and continues to do so. Each week we will do our best and see if we can get back in the fight and give him a few sleepless nights. We are all coming here to race and I’m coming here to win.”
“So second and fourth in the championship now for us; we are not out of reach,” Dixon added. “That’s the main thing. We still have a fighting chance and I think between Team Target and Honda, we are definitely going to be pushing as hard as we can.”
And now they arrive at a track where they already have given a glimpse of the horsepower they will be bringing to the show. During the open test on May 7, Dixon was the fastest among the 12 drivers that tested at 212.371 miles per hour while Franchitti was third at 210.525 mph.
And if history dictates, it could be a battle between the series’ juggernauts. Penske Racing or Target Chip Ganassi has won every race at Texas Motor Speedway since 2006, with Penske owning five of the seven wins. Penske and Ganassi split in last season’s Firestone Twin 275s dual race format, with Franchitti winning the first race and Power taking the second.