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IndyCar rivalries lacking bite, bile heading into Indianapolis 500

Dan Wheldon, left, and Marco Andretti hang out at a postrace party at Push Ultra Lounge after the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

LUIS SANTANA | Times (2009)

Dan Wheldon, left, and Marco Andretti hang out at a postrace party at Push Ultra Lounge after the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

INDIANAPOLIS — Dario Franchitti has spent the better part of his career trying to find ways to beat Tony Kanaan.

Yet when it looked as if Kanaan might miss today's Indianapolis 500 after wrecking twice last weekend during qualifying, Franchitti texted Kanaan words of encouragement.

During Kanaan's last effort to make the 33-car field, Franchitti sat in his trailer going nuts.

"My dogs were definitely worried because I was shouting at the TV when he was on his qualifying run, and they were definitely confused as to what I'm shouting at," Franchitti said.

The day ended with Kanaan in the race and Franchitti buying dinner. If Franchitti or Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon don't win this afternoon, Franchitti is openly rooting for Kanaan — a longtime friend and former teammate — to finally come through at the Brickyard.

"Nothing would make me happier," Franchitti said.

Therein lies one of IndyCar's great dilemmas.

New CEO Randy Bernard talks often of creating compelling story lines to build around his drivers, but every good story needs a yin to offset the yang. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The Red Sox and the Yankees. Ohio State and Michigan.

An intense rivalry combined with gamesmanship and an ounce or two of bile can raise an entire sport. In IndyCar, the rivalries are largely benign.

Danica Patrick is IndyCar's lightning rod and was booed last week for publicly criticizing her car's setup and by extension her crew after a poor qualifying run. But she's America's most popular open-wheel driver.

Even IndyCar's version of the Celtics and Lakers get along swimmingly.

Ganassi and Penske Racing have combined to win three of the past four 500s and 20 of the past 22 series races. Yet the relationship between the two organizations is hardly hostile.

"We're great friends, and we work together on a lot of issues that come along from time to time," Ganassi said of Roger Penske. "At the same time, we'd cut each other's heart out after the last pit stop somewhere."

Even so, those battles usually end with a handshake.

That wasn't always the case. A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti spent years in an icy staredown, fighting for supremacy. Their relationship didn't warm until both men retired.

Looking for grudges now? Try NASCAR, where teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are feuding. Try Europe, where drivers talking to foes can be seen as a sign of weakness.

Not in IndyCar.

"You'd like to hate (Ganassi's team) to death, but they're such great guys," Penske driver Ryan Briscoe says.

It's a refrain echoed often.

St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon considers Dixon and Marco Andretti among his best friends. Kanaan is universally respected and has become everybody's big brother. Castroneves is one of the most approachable personalities in racing.

Though retaliatory driving and trash-talking aren't part of the IndyCar culture like in NASCAR, that doesn't mean the series couldn't benefit from a bit of both. NASCAR's popularity skyrocketed in the late 1990s, when Jeff Gordon rose to challenge Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s dominance.

"They didn't create that, it just happened," said John Andretti, a veteran of both series. "All of a sudden, two huge groups of people are like, 'Hey, I'm for him, I'm for him.' "

Can it happen in IndyCar? Perhaps — the series got some mileage out of tension between Wheldon and Patrick a few years ago. But it can't be forced.

"I think it would be good for here, but you've got to find that one person that's going to be right (for) that," John Andretti said.

Franchitti insists IndyCar drivers don't have to throw a tantrum or pick a fight to prove their desire to win.

"If you tell me Scott Dixon or Tony Kanaan doesn't (want to win) or Helio doesn't, (you're wrong)," Franchitti said. "Helio, behind all the hair gel, that guy is as hard a competitor as you're going to meet. Maybe people confuse an easygoing attitude with that and that's a shame."

IndyCar rivalries lacking bite, bile heading into Indianapolis 500 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 10:26pm]
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