Ganassi, Penske ready for duel

Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi are playing it coy this week. With three days to go before IndyCar’s season finale, they’re not giving away secrets. Both teams know this year’s duel in the desert will come down to a simple recipe: Stay out of trouble, stay up front and to the winner could go the 2011 points title.

INDIANAPOLIS — Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi are playing it coy this week.

With three days to go before IndyCar’s season finale, they’re not giving away secrets.

Both teams know this year’s duel in the desert will come down to a simple recipe: Stay out of trouble, stay up front and to the winner could go the 2011 points title.

“I see Will (Power) and the Penske boys as very, very difficult opponents, and that was the same last year,” said Dario Franchitti, the leader and two-time defending champ. “It’s no different now. But our job is to go out and to beat them this Sunday.”

With two weeks between races, the teams involved in this two-man chase have had plenty of time to work out strategies.

Details, however, have been scant.

Franchitti has emerged from a wild season with a solid 18-point lead going into Las Vegas. If he finishes in the top seven, Power would have to win the race to dethrone him. If Franchitti finishes in the top nine, Power would have to finish first or second to win his first season championship.

Scott Dixon, Franchitti’s teammate, insists the team hasn’t talked strategy yet because so much could change after qualifying or during the race. Team Penske is taking the same tack as Power heads into a second straight season-ending clash with his Scottish rival.

Even master strategists Mike Hull at Ganassi and Tim Cindric at Penske aren’t saying much about Sunday’s plans.

“Penske Racing has always defined what’s important about IndyCar racing, and that’s winning,” said Hull, Ganassi’s managing director.

“Winning is the most important thing, and it’s all about today’s effort.”

Even so, a top-seven finish would give Franchitti a good shot at a third straight title, while Power has little room for error and is hoping for some help from teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.

“We need to win the race,” he said. “So we’re just focused on doing that and also getting the other two up there as well because, at the end of the day, if we finish one, two, three as a team, we win the championship.”

Getting all three Penske cars up front could be even more of a challenge than usual.

Thirty-four cars are expected to clog Vegas’ 1.5-mile oval. That’s a bigger field than Indianapolis and on a smaller track. That means closer racing with more potential for lapped traffic or crashes to wreak havoc on the championship plot.

Power, however, welcomes the crowd.

“In my situation, I kind of like the idea. We’ve got 34 cars, but it’s just like you saw in Kentucky, anything can happen at any time,” he said.

“That’s the beauty of the sport, too. You don’t know — it’s not over till it’s over.”

Another potential problem: Pit stops.

Power was the points leader heading to Kentucky two weeks ago, won the pole and led the first 48 laps with a quick car.

Then he collided with Ana Beatriz on pit row and wound up 19th.

That poor finish gave the lead back to Franchitti, who is poised to become the first driver to win three straight championships and four overall since the IndyCar-CART split in 1996.

But the pit traffic has caused consternation for Cindric and Hull all season.

“I have to reorganize myself to understand who we’re next to at a particular event, ’Oh, what does this driver do, what does the guy do that calls that race, how do they get that guy in the box, how do they not,”’ Hull said. “It used to be we were a lot more familiar with that throughout the year. It’s disappointing that the people helping them get in and out of the box aren’t always getting it done. It happens.”

Then there’s the race within the race — for the big money.

Dan Wheldon is starting last as he chases a $5 million payday that IndyCar is offering to any moonlighting driver who wins the finale. Though Wheldon won this year’s Indy 500 and is the 2005 points champ, he couldn’t put together a full-time ride this season and was ruled eligible for the prize, which he would split with a fan.

While Wheldon understands how to win on ovals, having him charging through the field could endanger the prospects of Franchitti or Power.

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