Ganassi, Penske rivalry good for IndyCar

Red Sox and Yankees. Cowboys and Redskins. Penske and Ganassi.

In the auto racing world, there may be no bigger rivalry than the one that Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi wage weekly in the IZOD IndyCar Series and in NASCAR. They are two completely different worlds, yet it always seems like the legendary team owners and their cars and drivers find themselves having to battle each other for dominance.

But while they definitely want to beat each other on race day, it's clear that both men have great respect for one another.

"We've had good rivalries and we're friends," said Penske at a Carb Day morning news conference. "[Ganassi's] supported us in a number of areas when we needed it and vice versa. I tell you, if he needed a car for some reason at a racetrack, he could have one of mine."

Ganassi then playfully quipped, "Where were you Saturday?" To which Penske replied, "You were going through the [qualifying] line so fast that I couldn't get mine up front to give it to you."

The good-natured exchange shows this is a gentleman's rivalry, a concept that can get buried in the hatred and hype that other prominent rivalries wrap themselves in. But it works for the two men and as another Indianapolis 500 looms, they're looking forward to another spirited duel between their squads.

But as they keep watch of their teams going into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, they've also been keeping watch of the sport's health. Both men believe there's a definite uptick in momentum behind the 500 and IndyCar, but they also agreed there were still elements missing that could accelerate the rebirth process that began with unification of the IRL and Champ Car two years ago.

"No. 1, we need to get more TV exposure," Penske said. "I think that the ratings where we are, they need to get better. I know all sports are under some pressure today, but I think if the show and the ability for us to have full fields is going to make the difference, then I think [last] weekend, this past weekend was good with a new format...

"...We even talked today - it was brought up in the driver's meeting - do we have a situation like NASCAR where if you're running fourth and you're 17th in line, do you get to line up fourth to take the restart? Those are things I think the League has to take a look at."

Ganassi echoed Penske's comments, stressing that the entire saga of rebuilding IndyCar will play out in bits and pieces. However, he also credited title sponsor IZOD for helping things along.

"It's one step at a time," he said. "I think we're making steps. I think the management's in place to make those steps and have been given the edict to do that. I think it's moving along at the right pace.

"Boy, IZOD, when I saw those TV commercials during the NFL playoffs and over the winter, I thought that was big. We have a willing partner. That's 90 percent of the way there."

DARIO GOES P1 IN FINAL '500' PRACTICE

Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy winner, topped the charts in the final practice session before Sunday's Indianapolis 500 with a lap at 225.574 mph. Afterward, the two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion said he was happy with the speed and balance on his machine in race trim.

Franchitti isn't sure exactly where the race pace will settle at on Sunday. Warm weather is expected for race day, and that usually means a slicker track for drivers to contend with.

"We ran north of 225 there in race trim, but I don't know if it'll be quite that quick [on Sunday]," he said. "I think we have to go around that pace in order to win it. It might slow down just a touch with the extra heat, which will be there on Sunday."

He also considered the 15 push-to-pass boosts allotted to drivers for this race as a potentially major factor in the outcome.

"Do you use it on restarts? Do you use it at the start? You got to keep some for close to the end, because it has an effect," he said. "We'll go back there and smarter people than me will come up with a plan, and we'll try to stick to that."

Scott Dixon, Will Power, Bruno Junqueira and Helio Castroneves rounded out the top five in the final practice session.

ODDS AND ENDS

The Team Penske crew of Castroneves won the annual pit stop challenge with a stop of 8.001 seconds in the finals, besting the Newman-Haas team of Hideki Mutoh (9.548 seconds). ... Wade Cunningham of New Zealand defeated American driver Charlie Kimball and Canada's James Hinchcliffe to win the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100. ...The Delta Wing prototype model (along with its chief designer, Ben Bowlby) was on display in the shadows of the Pagoda. Also near the radical machine were posters of the other concepts put forth from Swift, Dallara, BAT, and Lola in a makeshift showcase of what may be the sport's future.