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Dario's title and Helio's acquittal headline '09 IndyCar season

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2009 IndyCar Series season had its share of news stories, ranging from Dario Franchitti's masterful return to open-wheel racing to Helio Castroneves' acquittal in his federal tax evasion trial. Speculation of Danica Patrick's future also has made for an interesting year on the circuit.

SUPER DARIO

One year after his return to IndyCar following a brief stint in NASCAR, Franchitti captured his second series championship with a victory in last weekend's season-finale at Homestead.

Franchitti won his first title in 2007 before switching from open-wheel to stock car racing. When his efforts in NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series competition went off track, Franchitti joined Chip Ganassi Racing's IndyCar team in September 2008, and his comeback was nothing short of success.

After a fourth-place finish in the April 5 season-opener in St. Petersburg, FL, Franchitti drove to his first victory of the year and took the points lead two weeks later in Long Beach, CA. He endured his season-worst finish of 18th later in the month at Kansas.

Franchitti ended the season with five victories. His Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon won five times as well.

Dario Franchitti won five races and a championship in his first year back in IndyCar.
At Homestead, just eight points separated the top-three drivers -- Dixon, Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe from Team Penske. Franchitti kicked off the weekend by taking the pole and earning a much needed bonus point, putting him four markers behind leader Dixon.

Franchitti capitalized on a late-race pit strategy and then held off Briscoe and Dixon in the final laps for the victory. He ended the year 11 points ahead of Dixon and 12 in front of Briscoe.

"I didn't think I'd win five races and a championship in my first year back," said Franchitti, who collected a $1 million bonus for his title. "I knew driving for team Target, I'd have good equipment, just a question of could I get back into it and compete at a level that I had [before]."

Franchitti is the oldest driver to win a series championship at age 36. He also became the third driver with multiple titles, joining Dixon and Sam Hornish Jr., who holds the record with three.

"In '07, there was a lot of satisfaction in getting that one done," he said. "And now to come back from where we were a year ago. I think that's what makes it sweeter is we've got everybody together, and you've got a more balanced schedule as well."

While this year's battle for the championship turned out to be a tight one, team owner Chip Ganassi couldn't be more pleased with the outcome of this season. Ganassi's drivers finished 1-2 in the standings and combined for 10 wins in the 17-race schedule.

"When you look back at the season, I'm the luckiest owner in the paddock," Ganassi said. "I've got two great drivers."

Dixon entered this season as the heavy favorite to win the championship. He clinched his second series title in convincing style last year, winning six races, including the Indianapolis 500. Dixon set a series record in August when he won at Mid-Ohio and surpassed Hornish for most career victories with 20.

COMPETITION

This year, the Indy Racing League restructured its bonus points system, and it played a big factor in deciding the championship. From 2000-08, all three bonus points were awarded to the lap leader of each race, but this season, the pole winner of each race received one point, and the driver who led the most laps picked up two points.

Of the 49 bonus points awarded this year, Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti combined for 38 of them. Briscoe received 14 points, while Dixon earned 13 and Franchitti took 11.

Franchitti had the most poles this season with five.

In August, the IRL made aerodynamic changes to the cars to create more competitive racing. Brief bursts of additional horsepower made available to drivers through a button -- referred to as "push to pass" -- on their steering wheel led to a thrilling finish at Kentucky.

Briscoe edged Carpenter by inches for the victory at Kentucky, making it one of the closest finishes. The first 11 races of the season featured a dismal total of 72 lead changes, but Kentucky saw the top position swap hands 20 times.

FROM DEFENDANT TO INDY 500 CHAMPION

The fate of Castroneves' racing career hung in the hands of a 12-member jury in a grueling six-week federal tax evasion trial earlier this year. His biggest nightmare came to an end of April 17 when he was found not guilty of six charges of tax evasion. The jury was deadlocked on one count of conspiracy, but prosecutors later dropped that charge.

Hours after his acquittal, Castroneves traveled to Southern California and turned in a seventh-place finish on the streets of Long Beach. Will Power substituted for Castroneves in the No.3 car at St. Petersburg, but Penske moved Power to a third entry at Long Beach, where he impressively started on the pole and finished second.

Castroneves redeemed himself with his third win in the Indianapolis 500 in May. He led the final 58 laps and held off 2005 race winner Dan Wheldon by nearly two seconds in what was perhaps his most emotional victory in racing.

"I think my tears speak for everything," an emotional Castroneves said in Indy's Winner's Circle.

With the victory, Castroneves moved to within five points of leader Franchitti, who finished seventh. Castroneves won again in June at Texas, but his season headed south from there, as he finished the year a distant fourth in points (-183).

POWER-FUL WIN

In July, Power scored his first victory in the series with a dominating performance in Edmonton, Canada. Power started on the pole and led 90 of 95 laps. One week prior to Edmonton, he finished third on the streets of Toronto -- his first start since a fifth-place run in the Indy 500.

Despite running a limited schedule for Penske, Power appeared to be one of the hottest drivers on the circuit until his horrifying wreck at Sonoma, CA in August. Power was sidelined for the remainder of the season after suffering multiple fractures in his lower back when he collided into Nelson Philippe during practice at Sonoma.

DANICA'S FUTURE

Danica Patrick finished a career-best fifth in points this year. Since her rookie season in IndyCar in 2005, Patrick has been the sport's biggest star. She became the first female to win a major closed-course auto racing event with her victory in April 2008 in Japan. But her future in the series remains uncertain, as she entertains the idea of a transition to NASCAR.

Patrick reportedly has signed a three-year contract to stay at Andretti Green Racing, but a limited number of stock car races continues to be an option for her.

NASCAR driver and owner Tony Stewart said in September that Patrick was seriously considering a switch. Her experimentation period would likely involve NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races, as well as ARCA events.

Patrick made multiple trips to Stewart's race shop in North Carolina this summer to seek advice.

Michael Waltrip Racing and JR Motorsports -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide team -- recently have expressed interest in the 27-year-old driver.

For quite sometime, NASCAR has been savoring the possibility that Patrick will come to their sport, given her enormous popularity and wide marketability.

The coming weeks should be interesting for both IndyCar and NASCAR, as Patrick continues to ponder her future.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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