Dario Franchitti will make his 250th Indy car start on Sunday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. But the race is becoming increasingly important for a different reason entirely -- it could be his last chance to mount a serious challenge at the IndyCar Series championship this season.
While that sounds like hyperbole after just two races, the Grand Prix of Long Beach is already the third of only 19 races this season. The Target Ganassi veteran is off to the worst start of his career, finishing 25th in both races at St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park, leaving him dead last in the championship standings.
Franchitti enters Long Beach a whopping 69 points out of the lead and in desperate need of a victory at a temporary street course where he has just one trophy in 12 starts.
Making matters worse is that Franchitti is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, finishing 2012 with only a single victory and a seventh in the final championship standings. While that one triumph -- in the Indianapolis 500 -- was special, another single-victory campaign won't be enough to return to championship form.
If Franchitti is going to make a serious challenge at a fifth title, it has to start at Long Beach where the Scott sat on the pole last year.
It's important for Franchitti to replicate that feat on Saturday due to the number of bonus points that can be accrued by winning poles, leading the most laps and scoring victories. Franchitti is not going to climb back toward the top five with podiums alone. He must secure max points and the winning has to start immediately.
While team owner Chip Ganassi has expressed some concerns over Honda's commitment to contention, Franchitti's teammates -- Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball have proven to be contender thus far. The pair sits third and sixth in the standings after Birmingham which is both a positive and negative for Franchitti's championship ambitions.
On the plus side, Dixon and Kimball have proven during the first two races that Honda and Ganassi do have speed and will challenge for victories this season. Franchitti has access to the same equipment and notes as but will have to skip ahead of both teammates in order to return to contention. As the old adage goes, beating your teammates is often the hardest task in motorsports.
Ultimately it's not the 69 points that will be near-impossible for Franchitti to overcome, but rather the other 25 drivers that lie ahead of him. Franchitti has already used up two mulligans and it's reasonable to expect him to use a few more before the season is over.
Franchitti has to offset the damage that has and will be done with victories and hope that his rivals experience the same number over the course of a full season. That's already happened once with James Hinchcliffe winning at St. Petersburg and finishing last at Barber. If similar fates befall the rest of the grid while Franchitti capitalizes with victories, the IndyCar Series could see one of the most impressive comebacks of all time.
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