One major question remains as the fight for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship heads toward its conclusion at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks: Can Team Penske's Will Power break through and win on an oval?
At this rate, the answer may determine whether Power hangs on to win the title or Dario Franchitti comes from behind to successfully defend his.
When the season-closing stretch of oval races began on Aug. 28 at Chicagoland Speedway, Power was up by 59 points after dominating on the twisting tracks for much of the season. Considering the team behind him and the talent he possesses, there wasn't much doubt that Power could achieve his breakthrough win on speedways - although whether he would actually do so was another matter.
In each of the last three races (Chicagoland, Kentucky and Twin Ring Motegi), Power has run strong but hasn't been able to keep ahead of Franchitti at the finish.
In the Windy City, he was forced to pit with five laps to go and finished 16th while Franchitti won. At Kentucky, he finished eighth after a near-miss with the wall caused him to lose precious positions in the later stages. Franchitti finished fifth.
On Saturday in Japan, Power fell back as far as 10th, but managed to creep back toward the front with the help of solid work in the pits from his No. 12 Penske crew. At the checkered flag, he was in third place -- and grabbed his first podium finish ever on an oval.
But Franchitti was still one spot ahead of him.
The Scotsman's consistency (a win, two podiums and three top fives) in the last three events has helped him reel in Power like a fish. And considering that Franchitti is the defending champion at Homestead, the pressure on Power is set to reach a crescendo at the season finale on Oct. 2.
"I've never finished ahead of [Franchitti] on an oval and one day, I'll get it - hopefully this year, because if I don't, he'll win," said Power on Saturday.
Should Franchitti collect maximum points at Homestead - 50 for the win, plus one for winning the pole and two for leading the most laps - he'll be a three-time series champion. He can also win the title if he finishes second and Power finishes outside the top six. On the other side, Power owns the almighty tiebreaker (his five wins this season trumps Franchitti's three).
To Franchitti's credit, he's never settled into the idea of having an edge on Power due to his experience in tight championship battles. Even though Power is, once again, going to race at a facility that he has never raced on before, Franchitti believes that the Australian will be a contender in South Florida.
"I don't think [Power's inexperience] will matter," he said. "I think he will get up to speed very quickly...You just get out there and get the pace quickly, and just like here, [there's] no reason why he can't do it at Homestead. We just have to make sure we beat him."
It's fitting that the championship is coming down to the two best drivers this series has at the moment; Power being the IndyCar road/street coursechampion and Franchitti being IndyCar's oval champion (a title he earned at Motegi).
Ever since Power got the full-time nod at Penske over the offseason, he's done everything in his power to ensure that he'll never have to pound the pavement for rides again. Winning the championship would cap off what has been an incredible year for him.
Franchitti has been equally as strong, with a second victory in the Indianapolis 500 as his big highlight so far. He's been at the top of his game for several years now, and if not for his sojourn to NASCAR in 2008, we'd be talking about him battling for a fourth straight title.
If Power is able to beat Franchitti, he'll have beaten the best in the game. And if Franchitti is able to beat Power, he'll have beaten a driver that looks to be at or near the front of the pack for years to come.
For IndyCar fans looking forward to yet another down-to-the-wire ending to the championship, it's going to be a long two weeks.