The two protagonists head to Joliet with one thing on each of their minds: securing the 2008 IndyCar Series championship. All season, the title has firmly been Scott Dixon's to lose, and merely two races ago at Kentucky, he held a solid 78-point margin over Helio Castroneves.
But the last two events, the Brazilian erased 48 points from that to reduce the gap to 30. Despite Castroneves' best efforts, the math is simple. If Dixon finishes in eighth place or better, the title is his regardless of what Castroneves does. Dixon spoke of his chances entering the final event of the year.
"I think Chicago's going to be very tough," he said. "It's one of those circuits that provides great racing and definitely nail biting for a championship race, which is exactly what the fans want and everybody that's watching."
"Obviously we want to beat one person, that's Helio (Castroneves). We want to do it in style. If we're able to go for a record seven victories in a single season, that's definitely what we're going to try to do. It won't be anything conservative from us."
The fact Castroneves even has a chance to pry his elusive first title from Dixon's grasp is a testament to his and his team's fighting spirit. At Kentucky, Dixon triumphed on the last lap over a fuel-conserving and slowing Castroneves, all but dooming any hope of his clawing back into contention.
En route to Sonoma, a massive conflagration claimed all property aboard the Penske hauler. Most of the series pitched in to help the proverbial 800-lb gorilla, Team Penske, recover what they could for race weekend. Despite racing patchwork backup cars, Penske teammates Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe persevered to qualify and finish 1-2.
"Yes, you just carry the good momentum," Castroneves said at the time. "That's what's been happening with the Ganassi guys. They just have good momentum, a little bit of luck, and all of a sudden they are like 78 points in the lead. Now it's our momentum."
Castroneves was well placed to win his second consecutive race last weekend at Detroit but for a blocking penalty that relegated him to second place. More surprised than overly upset about the call, Castroneves heads to Chicago with the momentum if not the overall results this season.
"I can't let this bother me for the next race, because we have next weekend," Castroneves said in the aftermath of Detroit. "But definitely tomorrow we'll turn the page and work as hard as we can. Because the good news is, we're still battling for the championship."
"If it's 30 points less or behind, I don't know the math, but I know we're going to have a lot of work again. So we know what we need to do. We know we're going after a good team. But I trust my guys, I trust my team, and I know we can do it."
Dixon has six wins to Castroneves' lone triumph at Sonoma, but the Brazilian has remained in the fight in large part due to eight runner-up finishes.
Of course Dixon was well en route to winning last year's championship but for a pint of ethanol that wasn't there on the last half-lap. The resulting loss of speed demoted the New Zealander to vice-champion status both in the race and the overall standings.
"We had a fast car on the day and it came down to strategy a little bit, running out of fuel because we basically used too much," Dixon said of last year's event. "That was a tough way to deal with it after such a long season and the success that we had coming down and closing that gap, to have it sort of finish with having maybe a cupful of gas was pretty tough. It was a big motivational thing for everybody I think this year."
The two are going for the title currently held by Dario Franchitti, though he only owns it until Sunday. It was announced yesterday the Scotsman was returning to his open wheel roots and teaming with Dixon at Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon compared this year's chase to last when he was going against Franchitti.
"It's definitely a lot better than last year's situation where we went in trailing by I think about three points," he noted. "Having a 30-point lead, Helio has to win the race, get most laps led, we have to finish eighth or worse for him to win it. It's a lot for him to do. But I think we can quite easily see that situation has happened this season already when he did it at Sonoma. It's going to be hard for us to make sure we keep going on it."
The title chase is the main focus of the weekend but there are also a couple other headlines. Returning to an IndyCar seat for the first time since St. Petersburg in April, Franck Perera hops aboard A.J. Foyt's second entry that is racing for only the second time all season. Jeff Simmons drove the No. 41 at Indianapolis. With the call-up to IndyCar, Perera will not participate in the Indy Lights event this weekend.
Two new primary sponsors will appear, CDW aboard the KV Racing Technologies No. 5 driven by Oriol Servia while former Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice will wheel the No. 15 Dad's Root Beer entry for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The latter deal comprises a major partnership for 2009 that should see the signage featuring prominently on Rice's car.