The gloves come off as championship battle heats up

SONOMA, Calif. -- When Scott Dixon was part of a four-driver championship battle in the IndyCar Series last season, it pitted the two most gentlemanly teams in the series -- Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

It was Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves representing Team Penske with Dan Wheldon and Dixon competing for Ganassi.

It was a tough but fair battle that went all the way to the final race of the season at Chicagoland Speedway, with Hornish and Wheldon ending up tied in points. But Hornish won the championship based on the tiebreaker of more victories.

It was a fair fight between two classy teams, with both sides congratulating each other at the end of the season.

By contrast, this year's battle for the IndyCar series is like a street fight.

The four-driver Andretti Green Racing team has brought a gang-fight edginess to the title race, with a teammate such as Tony Kanaan more than happy to use team tactics in an attempt to help Dario Franchitti win a championship for AGR.

The team has brought a dead-end mentality to this title race. It's reflective of the eastern Pennsylvania area where Michael Andretti is from, where tough men worked in the cement factories of Nazareth and even tougher men worked the steel mills down the road in Allentown and Bethlehem.

And everybody thought NASCAR had all the tough guys.

Saturday night's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Bristol looked like a softball game compared to the intimidation tactics AGR tried to use in Sunday's Motorola Indy 300 at Infineon Raceway.

It was four against one, and the one prevailed, but he got a little help when the race leader tangled with one of his own teammates.

Franchitti started on the pole and appeared to be on his way to an easy win before Marco Andretti came out of the pits in front of this year's Indianapolis 500 winner on lap 69. Andretti had his own idea of winning the race, and when he raced Franchitti hard going through the first turn, the two cars touched, sending Andretti's car off the race course.

When Dixon drove by and realized Franchitti's front wing was damaged, a big smile came over the New Zealander's face.

In Franchitti's mind, justice had been served in a most ironic way.

"Today was very frustrating, especially having to deal with TK [Kanaan] a lot," Dixon said. "He was not playing fair at all. We were all warned in the drivers' meeting about team tactics. I think the IRL [Indy Racing League] was watching another race because it was definitely going on."

Outnumbered 4-1 but not outmatched, Dixon was able to take advantage of the Franchitti-Andretti incident to take the lead, win the race and take over the championship lead. Franchitti's 65-point lead at the end of June has turned into a four-point deficit.

At one point in the race, Dixon screamed into his radio about Kanaan blocking him.

"You mean you could work those words out?" Dixon joked, because his over-the-air conversation contained a few expletives. "He was just obviously slowing down. When we had clear laps and he was at speed, he was doing 77s [seconds per lap]. When they came across and told TK to slow down because Dario was getting into traffic, he started running in the 79s -- almost two seconds a lap slower.

I had to protect Dario as much as I could over the final few laps. The guy has done a lot for me over the years and I was thinking about the team.

Tony Kanaan

"In the middle of the corner, he was just crawling. There are two sections of a lap he was making it very slow and very pronounced that he was trying to give Dario a gap. Of course it's frustrating. If that's how it's going to go, it's just a bit sad, really."

Once Dixon got in the lead and was being chased by Helio Castroneves, Franchitti was in third, followed by Kanaan in fourth and Sam Hornish Jr.

It was obvious Kanaan's car was faster than Franchitti's, but the Brazilian driver refused to pass his teammate, trying to minimize Dixon's gain in the standings. That also held up Hornish, who probably could have passed both Kanaan and Franchitti and sunk Franchitti even deeper in the points.

"I had to protect Dario as much as I could over the final few laps," Kanaan admitted. "The guy has done a lot for me over the years and I was thinking about the team. Motor racing is a very selfish sport, but I'm proud of what I did today.

"It wasn't going to change anything for me to be second, third or fourth. I want this team to win a championship and I'm pretty sure Dario will. It's a little setback, but we've still got two races to go."

Dixon has gotten little help from his teammate, Dan Wheldon, who was mathematically eliminated from title contention on Sunday. So he knows that the numbers are in AGR's favor, but he's going to show that in an unfair fight, he can overcome the four-on-one disadvantage.

"That's why they have four cars," Dixon said. "That's the advantage they have.

"It would be the same if we were in that situation, but it's unfortunate on these circuits we can't even have two cars close to each other. We have to work on that because it's an advantage they have. Unfortunately, Dan has had kind of a rough run on the road courses. Unfortunately again, that seems to be where AGR is very strong.

"Three of them in front of me in this race and one closely behind. At Mid-Ohio, all four of them were in front of us after qualifying. It kind of has been four on one. Luckily, at Mid-Ohio they all sort of took each other out, which was a big help."

That's why Sunday's win was so satisfying to the 2003 IndyCar champion.

"It was big," Dixon said. "After last year we had a fair bit of unfinished business. Our car was very strong. I think we deserved to win last year, but we always had these problems.

"It's a problem when you have a good weekend and you think what's going to happen, what's going to go wrong. It sure did last year."

The AGR gang did their best to give Dixon an auto-racing version of a wedgie on Sunday, keeping him boxed in with one driver in front and another driver behind. There were probably a few spitballs and noogies thrown in there that no one saw.

But in the end, Dixon didn't flinch and showed he can't be intimidated, even if it is four-on-one.

Now this street fight heads to the streets of Detroit for the Belle Isle Grand Prix in a city made famous by the NBA's original "Bad Boys" -- the Detroit Pistons.

Maybe Dixon can convince Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer to cover his backside from the AGR gang.

Bruce Martin is a freelance contributor to ESPN.com.