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Kanaan creeping up on leaders

The 2004 champ heads into today’s race with 2 straight wins and a long shot at title.

IRL drivers Marco Andretti, right, Tony Kanaan, left, and Michael Andretti, center, speak before Friday’s practice session in preparation for the Motorola Indy 300 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. IndyCar series leader Dario Franchitti is on the pole for today’s race.

AP photo

SONOMA, Calif. — Just three races ago, Tony Kanaan thought the rest of the 2007 season he would just be running out the string, hoping for a victory or two to make a disappointing year more palatable.

But that mind-set has changed considerably with two straight wins, combined with some problems for the two drivers ahead of him in the IndyCar Series standings, leader Dario Franchitti and runner-up Scott Dixon.

Kanaan, the 2004 series champion and the 2005 Infineon winner, goes into today’s Motorola Indy 300 at Infineon Raceway having cut the deficit behind Franchitti from 111 points after the Mid-Ohio race on July 22 to 52 — still a big number, but not nearly as daunting.

“Three races to go, third in the points, we’ve got nothing to lose, really,” the Brazilian said.

The spotlight remains mostly on the duel between Franchitti and Dixon, separated by just eight points. And that’s just fine with Kanaan.

“Maybe I can just sneak up on them,” Kanaan said with a grin. “But I don’t think so. They know I’m here.”

Indeed they do.

“Tony is a driver who never gives up on anything,” said Franchitti, one of his Andretti Green Racing teammates. “He’s capable of winning a couple more races, and so is Scott, so we have to get going again if we want to stay ahead.”

The Scotsman has faltered after starting the season with 12 consecutive finishes of seventh or better, including three wins. While Kanaan has won his last two starts, Franchitti has finished 13th and eighth — not to mention walking away from scary airborne crashes in both events.

Since winning three straight races, Dixon has finished 10th and second, giving Kanaan a small opening to make it a three-man battle for the championship. But Kanaan knows his title hopes are a long shot.

“It’s going to be hard to win this championship, but I’m still going to fight for it,” Kanaan said. “I’m one of those who maximizes his results.

“The right way for me to catch them is for them to drop out of the race right away and finish 19th or 20th. If they finish 12th or 13th, they still win a lot of points. ... Dario has the same car as I do, he’s on the same team and has the same resources. The smartest thing for me to do is chase Scott and distract him so the team can win the championship.

“That wouldn’t make me upset,” Kanaan added. “Dario’s one of my closest friends and he’s helped me out a lot, protecting me. My goal is to try to beat Scott and we’ll see what happens.”

Dixon, the 2003 series champion, is focused on catching Franchitti.

“The three (wins) in a row for us seemed to be a huge gain, even though Dario was finishing second, so it didn’t make the advantage that significant,” the New Zealander said. “The last two races, we’ve been able to gain, at least on the points table.

“I think coming into this weekend, we seem pretty confident. ... We should be all right, but all the guys in the championship competition are very strong, so it will be hard to make any gains.”

Kanaan agreed.

“I’m being realistic and I’m just looking at winning races now,” he said. “As long as we keep doing that, it will keep us in the championship hunt. But, in my opinion, it’s going to be very difficult to win this thing.

“If I can’t win, I’ll do everything in a professional manner to help my teammate win. If he needs any help. Well maybe he does — to stop flipping. But he doesn’t need any help on the race track.”

For Franchitti, it is definitely time to get back to running — and finishing — with the leaders.

“We just need to win the races and try to be up front and do the best we can,” Franchitti said. “We can’t afford any more mistakes.”

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