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INDYCAR gambling on Vegas finale

LAS VEGAS -- There's plenty on the line when the Izod IndyCar Series visits Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend for its season finale (Sunday 3 p.m. ET, ABC).

For the sixth consecutive year, the IndyCar championship will be decided in the final race of the season, and if recent history is any indication, the title will not be decided until the moment the checkered flag waves after 300 miles of wheel-to-wheel action.

Dario Franchitti and Will Power have dominated the past two years of Indy car competition, and Franchitti will be attempting to secure his third consecutive (and fourth overall) IndyCar Series championship. He holds an 18-point lead over Power heading into the Las Vegas weekend; a second-place finish will guarantee the Scotsman the crown no matter what Power does Sunday. A third-place finish is good enough for Franchitti if Power wins but fails to secure all of the three bonus points available (one for pole position and two for leading the most laps).

But the LVMS race is more than just a championship decider. INDYCAR is self-promoting the race, signaling a new direction for the series in an era when oval track promoters have found it increasingly difficult to entice crowds to their tracks for non-NASCAR events.

Las Vegas is also viewed as a key market by INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard, who forged strong links to the City of Sin when he was the head of the Pro Bull Riders tour through early 2010.

The Nevada hot spot sporadically has played host to championship open-wheel racing since 1954, when Jimmy Bryan won a 100-miler on the dirt at Las Vegas Park. Bobby Unser won a one-off at a road course near the Stardust Casino in 1968, and a parking lot course at Caesar's Palace that started out as a Formula One venue hosted the CART-sanctioned Indy car series in 1983-84.

More recently, the Indy Racing League raced at LVMS from 1996 to 2000, before poor attendance put the kibosh on the event. The Champ Car World Series ostensibly headlined a weekend at LVMS in 2004-05, but in truth the open-wheel cars played second fiddle to the NASCAR Truck series.

Champ Car's attempts to create a downtown Las Vegas street race in 2007 resulted in one of the finest street courses ever seen, but it was a one-and-done event. All of which means that Indy car racing doesn't have a lot of credibility or cache with the Vegas set, something that Bernard is keen to rectify this weekend.

Through aggressive promotion and ticket giveaways (anyone who attended an IndyCar Series race this year could exchange their ticket stub for admission to the Las Vegas race), Bernard is hoping for attendance of
50,000-60,000 on Sunday, which would still leave the 142,000-seat venue looking pretty empty.

No matter how many fans actually show up, they should witness one of the most intriguing and exciting Indy car races in recent memory.
Thirty-four cars have been entered, the most ever for an INDYCAR-sanctioned race and just one entry fewer than the record 35 cars that started the 1997 Indianapolis 500.

Putting aside the championship battle between Franchitti and Power for a moment, the most notable car to watch this weekend is the No. 77 Bryan Herta Autosport/Sam Scmidt Motorsports entry driven by Indianapolis
500 winner Dan Wheldon, who has a chance to earn a $5 million prize to split with a randomly selected fan in the GoDaddy INDYCAR Challenge.

There's also an interesting battle in store for fifth place in the IndyCar Series championship. While Scott Dixon could move from third to second place, and Oriol Servia is locked into fourth place no matter what happens Sunday, the race for fifth is open.

Tony Kanaan holds the spot, but five drivers (Ryan Briscoe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick) could overtake him.

Speaking of sideshows, this is likely to be Patrick's last Indy car race for the foreseeable future as she pursues a full-time opportunity in NASCAR. Danica's best Indy car performances have come on 1.5-mile speedways like LVMS, and "America's Princess of Speed" no doubt will do her best to end her open-wheel racing career on a high note.

But, ultimately, what matters most is the championship battle between Power and Franchitti. Relations between the two deteriorated this year and it's unlikely that they'll be knocking back beers together around the barbecue anytime soon.

"In the middle of the season there was certainly a little more tension with some of the stuff that went on, but at this point it feels very, very similar to last year to me," said Franchitti, who came from behind to edge Power for the title in the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I see Will and the Penske boys as very, very difficult opponents, and our job is to go out and to beat them this Sunday."

"I'm sure if we weren't competing against each other, that we would be good friends," Power added. "You just can't be friends with someone that you so fiercely compete with. It's impossible -- it is for me, anyway. I respect him on the track, and we're friendly off the track in a way, and that's just how it's always going to be when you're competing against someone.

"I had an instance with my teammate in 2007, Simon Pagenaud, and we just fiercely hated each other. We didn't even talk in the truck, but now we're best of friends now that we don't compete against each other. That's just the way this sport is."

Power knows he pretty much has to win on Sunday. Franchitti, meanwhile, insists he won't be trying to keep track of where his rival is running.

"That's what the guys on the stand are for," Franchitti said. "I'll leave that to them and just drive the car and do very much what I'm told. I think the easiest way to do it is to head out there and try to win the race. If we can do that, it would definitely take care of everything else. I am definitely glad I don't have to find those points that I did last year."

For his part, Power claims to be in a relaxed frame of mind heading into the championship decider.

"Actually, I've never been so relaxed, and I sometimes think, 'Should I be more tense?'" he said. "I guess it's because we've put in all the hard work the last couple of weeks with the car. We've done everything we can think of. I've just gone about my fitness regime and I feel very relaxed and confident.

"I think the key is you just cannot give up till the very, very last lap," he added. "That's the way this sport is. At end of the day, if you've done everything you can preparation-wise, there's nothing more you can do. And that's what we have done."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.