IndyCar Notes: Franchitti Not Pumped Up About Tire Test

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 1 2009
Dario Franchitti is still in the hunt for a IndyCar Series championship. (Photo courtesy the Indy Racing League)

Dario Franchitti is still in the hunt for a IndyCar Series championship. (Photo courtesy the Indy Racing League)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Championship contender Dario Franchitti found himself in the awkward – and certainly risky – position of tire-testing around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval Tuesday and Wednesday with the season-ender looming on Oct. 10.

Franchitti is among three drivers vying for the 2009 IndyCar Series title, but neither Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon nor Penske Racing’s Ryan Briscoe was tapped to hot lap for Firestone around IMS. Dixon, the two-time and reigning series champion, leads the standings with 570 points – five more than Franchitti and eight up on Briscoe.

Three-time and defending Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Penske Racing joined Franchitti for the tire test that is a prelude to the 2010 running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on May 30, 2010.

Franchitti, the 2007 series and Indy 500 champion, would have loved to have handed off the tire-testing duties to Dixon.

“I think we were actually fighting to see who did the test,” Franchitti said. “This time of year, with the championship battle, days off are a premium. Both of us were saying, ‘You do it! No, no, no, it’s your turn.’ And I drew the short straw. But when you get that situation, you’ve got to take every advantage you can and learn as much as you can.”

Franchitti’s goal for the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway sounds simple: Finish ahead of Dixon – as he did in the 2007 season-ender to win the title – and Briscoe to earn a $1 million bonus, among other prizes.

The 2009 season already has been a successful and memory-laden return to the series’ diverse set of ovals and road/street courses for the 36-year-old Scotsman. Franchitti has scored four victories, four poles, 12 top-five finishes, 470 laps-led and the opportunity to become the third multi-time champion in series history.

Sam Hornish Jr. won championships in 2001 and 2002 for Pennzoil Panther Racing and the 2006 title with Marlboro Team Penske before exiting the series for a NASCAR Sprint Cup ride provided by team-owner Roger Penske. Dixon won his titles in 2003 and 2008 for team-owner Chip Ganassi.

Franchitti spent the 2008 season with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates competing in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. Franchitti started 10 Cup races with a best finish of 22nd. His best finish in 14 Nationwide starts was fifth. Ganassi opted to prematurely shut down Franchitti’s Dodge Cup team due to a lack of sponsorship funds…but offered the chance to return to open-wheel.

“The end of ’07, the reason I went away is because I was looking for some motivation,” said Franchitti, who also recorded four victories and 13 top-five finishes in 17 races that year. “With going away, I realized how I much I missed actually what I love to do – driving in the IndyCar Series. So when I got the chance to come back with the Target team it was really a no-brainer.

“From the first lap I’ve really enjoyed driving the car, and ultimately for me that’s what it’s all about – when you get in the car and how much I enjoy that or not. I thought at one point I would have retired maybe by the time I was 35. But I still love it. The fact I can still be competitive, I’m still out there winning races and challenging for championships, it’s just fun.

“Then there are the other things like being back in the paddock with the people I grew up with – not only drivers but team members – being back with the fans and going to the places we get to go to with the unified series. It all just adds up.”

A decade ago, Franchitti was involved in a down-to-the-wire race for the CART title, which he lost to Juan Pablo Montoya on a tiebreaker (seven wins to three). In 2007, Franchitti swapped the spot atop the standings with Dixon – ahead by three points –entering the finale at Chicagoland Speedway. After running second for the final 6½ laps, he overtook Dixon’s car to claim the victory and championship.

“It definitely helps you to know what to expect and deal with it better,” Franchitti said. “You improve as a driver and you improve your race craft and you maybe become a bit smarter.

“I think the difference is in ’04 I was able to back (then-Andretti Green Racing teammate and eventual series champion) Tony (Kanaan) up to the point of sacrificing race results. In ’05, we all did the same for Dan (Wheldon). In ’07, Danica (Patrick), Marco (Andretti) and especially TK did that for me. The problem right now is that Scott and I are in a championship fight, so although we want to help each other out, we can’t sacrifice our own race results for it. We’re both in our own fight.”

Franchitti projects the battle to play out to the conclusion of the scheduled 200 laps around the 1.5-mile HMS oval, where he has three top-10 finishes (high of fourth in 2006) in five races.

“It’s going to be a very close race,” Franchitti said. “It’s not a typical one-and-a-half mile because the corners are so tight. It’s a one-and-a-half that drives more like an Iowa. It’s going to be a hell of a show at Homestead.”

Coverage of the Firestone Indy 300 season-finale will begin with pre-race activity at 4 p.m. (ET), followed by the 200-lapper at 5 p.m. It will be broadcast live on VERSUS, the IMS Radio Network, XM Satellite Radio and indycar.com.

Cleaning out the IndyCar notebook following two days of testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

*Helio Castroneves, Indy 500 champion in 2001-02 and 2009, would make history with a fourth victory in May. In addition to joining four-time winners A.J. Foyt Jr., Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, the popular Brazilian would become the first driver in race history to earn consecutive 500 victories more than once.

“When you mention it like that, it’s like,‘Whoa, that’s right!’” Castroneves said. “It’s one of those incredible scenarios. Right now, we’ve got to think in the right direction: Finish the (2009 IndyCar Series) championship, and when the year starts in 2010, we’ve got to think about the whole nine yards.”

*Aero changes dominated the to-do list for Marco Andretti, Tomas Scheckter and Vitor Meira. The threesome tested a modified aerodynamic package that Indy Racing League officials hope will allow for more passing and even better competition during the 2010 Indianapolis 500.

Officials removed the vertical wickers from the rear-wing end-fences and moved the rain light toward the rear attenuator, all designed to reduce aerodynamic drag and turbulence behind the cars.

Andretti and Scheckter said they were confident the changes would be for the better, although the exact handling characteristics weren’t very noticeable without a large pack of cars running together.

“I think the big thing is how it (the car) reacts in traffic,” Scheckter said. “With the rain light and end-fences you’ve got a little bit bigger of a tow but you couldn’t follow cars as closely in the corners, and try and improve the racing. Maybe this is the way to go.”

The test marked Meira’s return to the cockpit of the No. 14 ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara/Honda for the first time since suffering serious back injuries in a crash during the 2009 Indy 500 on May 24. Team-owner Foyt said the Brazilian will not compete in the season-finale at HMS, where Ryan Hunter-Reay will continue his substitute driving duties.

*Michael Andretti’s outright purchase of Andretti Green Racing from business partners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree apparently has been seamless. Marco Andretti said he is excited about the team’s potential in its new direction, given that Michael Andretti’s full focus now will be on the IndyCar Series team. Green and Savoree, meanwhile, have taken control of Andretti Green Promotions.

“Hopefully we can devote our attention to where it needs to be, and that’s winning IndyCar races,””Marco Andretti said. “All good comes with results, and hopefully that’s the case.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 1 2009
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