The top spot in ESPN.com's IndyCar Series Power Rankings got passed around as often as the lead of the series championship this year.
We started the practice in the lead-up to the Indianapolis 500, and since then, Scott Dixon has topped the charts five times, including the final ranking for the 2009 season. Dario Franchitti was No. 1 on four occasions, Ryan Briscoe twice, and Helio Castroneves once.
After midseason, Castroneves was firmly planted at No. 4, while Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti swapped the first three places almost on a weekly basis.
In the end, even though he didn't win the 2009 championship, I placed Dixon at No. 1, mainly on the basis that I believe the rankings represent a driver's potential going into the next race. In other words, if whatever race that kicks off the 2010 IndyCar Series season were next week (it could be St. Petersburg, because things have gone awfully quiet on the Brazil front), I'd put my money on Dixon to win it.
I agonized about ranking series champion Franchitti second and wrote, "I'll probably hear from Dario after ranking him No. 2, yet he probably won't argue that Dixon deserves to be No. 1."
Indeed I did hear from the Scotsman, who made a credible case for why he should be ranked No. 1 over his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate. There was no animosity or ego involved, just the well-crafted thoughts of a passionate racer who takes every part of his craft seriously -- right down to media relations.
To wit, Franchitti felt he deserved to be ranked No. 1 for several reasons:
• He led the IndyCar Series in pole positions with five, plus the one taken away at Kansas Speedway because of a minor infringement. That's proof that over one lap, at least, he was the fastest driver in Indy car racing, and the poles came on all types of tracks -- short ovals, speedways, road courses and street courses. His five wins were also thoroughly diverse, from his strategy-driven victory in the finale to his dominant flag-to-flag run on the Infineon Raceway road course.
• His fuel-strategy win at Homestead was countered by losing the Richmond race to Dixon on fuel mileage.
"For the first year at a team and first year back, I'd say it was pretty good," he said. "I'm not normally one to sound my own trumpet, but anyway, the case for the defense rests."
To restate: Franchitti was the better qualifier, with five-plus poles to Dixon's two; matched Dixon on race wins with five; had one more top-10 finish than his teammate (15 versus 14 in a 17-race season); and made fewer mistakes -- Dario's only DNF was a crash at Kansas caused by a brake problem.
Is he right? I'm not sure. I probably would have been happiest listing the Ganassi teammates as co-No. 1s, but that would have been a cop-out.
You certainly can't diminish what Franchitti achieved this year -- my own words were: "Returned to Indy cars motivated and refreshed after his NASCAR sabbatical, matched Ganassi teammate Dixon with five wins and thoroughly deserved to emerge as series champion."
But I'm going to stand by my choice of Dixon as the No. 1 driver in the IndyCar Series Power Rankings. And I hope Franchitti and his fans don't take being listed as an oh-so-close No. 2 as an insult. If you happen to read this rebuttal, Dario, we will have to continue this argument over a couple of beers. And maybe include Dixie to hear what he has to say about the matter.
Besides, had there been just one timely caution in that Homestead race, Briscoe could have emerged as IndyCar Series champion, and there would have been a different name at the top of the Power Rankings.