THE STAGE IS SET

Helio rolls at Motegi; Power leads Dario by 12 with one to go

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And now, there is one. Once again, the IZOD IndyCar Series championship is going down to the wire at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

At one point during last night’s Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi, it looked like Will Power’s slim lead over Dario Franchitti in the title race was going to go away. But after falling back as far as 10th, Power was able to minimize points damage by climbing back toward the front and finishing third — one spot behind runner-up Franchitti.

As a result, Franchitti only gained five points on Power and will have to overcome a 12-point deficit in the season-ending Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 at Homestead (Oct. 2, 6 p.m. ET, Versus).

Neither of them — or anybody else — were able to stop Helio Castroneves, who dominated from the pole and beat Franchitti to the stripe by 4.5746 seconds after leading 153 of 200 laps. Castroneves outhustled Ryan Briscoe on pit road to take the lead for good at Lap 118 and constantly pulled away from the pack during the early parts of green flag runs.

The three-time Indy 500 champion notched his third victory of the season, and while it was unable to keep him (as well as Scott Dixon) from being formally eliminated in the title race, he was still happy.

“Team Penske is about execution and they gave me a fantastic car,” said Castroneves in post-race. “Every time I wanted to go for it, the car was responding.”

But the major story is the ongoing battle between Power and Franchitti, which has gotten considerably tighter since the series returned to the ovals late last month. Power has ran strong in the last three events but hasn’t been able to win or stay ahead of Franchitti at the finish in all of them.

He knows that finishing behind the Scotsman is no longer an option with one race remaining.

“I’ve never finished ahead of [Franchitti] on an oval and one day, I’ll get it,” said Power, the IndyCar road/street course champion. “Hopefully, this year because if I don’t, he’ll win.”

Franchitti won at Homestead last season and claimed his second IndyCar crown in three seasons (he spent 2008 running in NASCAR) over Dixon and Briscoe. But while it would appear that he has an edge on Power, who will once again see a track he’s never raced on, Franchitti immediately dismissed his Aussie rival’s inexperience at Homestead.

“I don’t think it will matter,” he said. “I think [Power] will get up to speed very quickly…You just get out there and get the pace quickly, and just like here, no reason why he can’t do it at Homestead.

“We just have to make sure we beat him.”

The crowd at Twin Ring Motegi seemed larger than in previous seasons and much of that can be attributed to the addition of former Formula One driver Takuma Sato, who remains wildly popular in his home country. Sato came home 12th in the No. 5 KV Racing Technology machine and in what has been a rough season for him, just getting the car back on the hauler in one piece is a major victory for himself and the team.

“It was a difficult start with the tight pack and the slippery track,” said Sato-san. ”I needed to be patient, but I did a lot of overtaking today. That was great fun…We lost a few places in the middle of the race, but we always fought back to gain positions.”

The other Japanese pilot in the field, Newman/Haas driver Hideki Mutoh, finished 14th. Mutoh ran as high as second place in the race but that was due to going off-sequence from the rest of the leaders.

“…It looked like our pit strategy was working out but it didn’t in the end because of the yellow, but I was so happy to run in front for the Japanese fans,” said Mutoh about the failed strategy. ”I think that was the highlight of this race. On the last stint I was able to pass many cars; I just wanted to show the Japanese fans that I’m here.”

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IZOD IndyCar Series
Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi
Motegi, Japan

Final results
1. 3-Helio Castroneves, Penske, avg. of 147.008 mph.
2. 10-Dario Franchitti, Ganassi, -4.5746 seconds.
3. 12-Will Power, Penske, -5.0743 seconds.
4. 6-Ryan Briscoe, Penske, -6.4825 seconds.
5. 7-Danica Patrick, Andretti, -7.6057 seconds.
6. 9-Scott Dixon, Ganassi, -8.3641 seconds.
7. 11-Tony Kanaan, Andretti, -9.4093 seconds.
8. 02-Graham Rahal, Newman/Haas, -11.7163 seconds.
9. 37-Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti, -12.2125 seconds.
10. 4-Dan Wheldon, Panther, -12.4720 seconds.
11. 26-Marco Andretti, Andretti, -15.5007 seconds.
12. 5-Takuma Sato, KV Racing Tech., -16.0693 seconds.
13. 77-Alex Tagliani, FAZZT, -17.6774 seconds.
14. 06-Hideki Mutoh, Newman/Haas, -18.2811 seconds.
15. 8-E.J. Viso, KV Racing Tech., -18.7349 seconds.
16. 22-Justin Wilson, Dreyer & Reinbold, -19.4293 seconds.
17. 14-Vitor Meira, Foyt, -20.1047 seconds.
18. 2-Raphael Matos, DFDragon, -21.2346 seconds.
19. 18-Milka Duno, Coyne, three laps down.
20. 36-Roger Yasukawa, Conquest, five laps down.
21. 19-Alex Lloyd, Coyne, crash at Lap 131. 
22. 24-Paul Tracy, Dreyer & Reinbold, contact at Lap 114.
23. 78-Simona de Silvestro, HVM, mechanical at Lap 85.
24. 32-Mario Moraes, KV Racing Tech., crash at Lap 66.
25. 34-Bertrand Baguette, Conquest, crash at Lap 1.

Race Statistics
Time of race: Two hours, four minutes, 4.4780 seconds. Cautions: Four for 50 laps. Lead changes: Three among three drivers. Lap leaders: Castroneves 1-70, Matos 71-85, Briscoe 86-117, Castroneves 118-200.

Point Standings
Power, 587.
Franchitti, -12.
Castroneves, -86.
Dixon, -90.
Briscoe, -137.
Hunter-Reay, -161.
Kanaan, -169.
Wheldon/Andretti, -221.
Wilson, -238.

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All quotes were taken from last night’s post-race press conference transcript and trackside report. Video credit: IndyCar/Versus.