Sturbin: Franchitti’s Career Comes Full Circle

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 12 2009
Dario Franchitti, wife Ashley Judd and the newest addition to their silverware collection. (Photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

Dario Franchitti, wife Ashley Judd and the newest addition to their silverware collection. (Photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Forged over dinner-and-a-napkin, the story of Dario Franchitti’s second IndyCar Series championship is basically about a driver content with his career decision-making. Moreover, it’s the story of a man quite comfortable with being Dario.

“I’m absolutely where I should be. I should be in Indy-cars,” Franchitti said Saturday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway, shortly after clinching the 2009 title with a victory in the Firestone Indy 300. “That is what I grew up to do _ race in the IndyCar Series.”

Wrapped around an unsuccessful foray into NASCAR that ended early in 2008, Franchitti secured his second IndyCar championship in three years with a savvy fuel-strategy victory over title rivals Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon.

“In ’07, there was a lot of satisfaction in getting that one done, and now to come back from where we were a year ago is very satisfying,” said Franchitti, who beat Team Penske’s Briscoe and Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dixon by 4.788-seconds in a race run without a caution flag. The 200-lapper also marked the end of the second season of open-wheel unification.

“I think that’s what makes it sweeter is we’ve got everybody together, and you’ve got a more balanced schedule, as well,” said Franchitti, who won his first championship while driving for Andretti Green Racing prior to unification. “That gives me really a lot of satisfaction, having to beat guys like – look down the list. Look at the drivers we’re competing against, Ryan and certainly Scott at the top of that. To beat those guys and to beat Scott on team equipment, you’ve had a great year.”

The spoils of victory started rolling in Sunday for Franchitti, chief among series participants honored during the Indy Racing League Championship Celebration poolside at the W Hotel on Miami’s South Beach. Brian Barnhart, president of the competition and operations division of the IRL, sanctioning body of the IndyCar Series, presented Franchitti with a $1 million championship bonus check and a mini IndyCar Series championship trophy. A mini IndyCar Series championship trophy also was awarded to Target Chip Ganassi Racing owner Chip Ganassi.

“You know, I’ve always said there are a lot of guys that can win races, but there aren’t nearly as many that can win championships,” said Ganassi, who took the soft-spoken Scotsman to NASCAR at the end of his 2007 title season. “That’s the kind of guy Dario is. I mean, he sneaks up on you. You can look back on this season, and I think if you look at his lap chart about where he runs in the races, he’s kind of always back there in third, fourth.  But then at the checkered flag, he’s always up there where the points are for some reason, where the big points are. He’s that kind of guy.

“It takes quite a driver to have the ability to maintain his composure during a race (like Saturday’s) and how the race played out. That’s strictly a level of maturity and a level of confidence in yourself and being a champion before, and knowing what it takes to be a champion.”

Winner of five races this season, Franchitti claimed the 2009 title by 11 points over Dixon – series champion in 2003 and 2008. Similarly, Franchitti clinched the 2007 title by 13 points over Dixon in the season-ender – and almost immediately began pondering his next challenge. It came in the form of NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide series rides with Ganassi’s organization.

That rather bold experiment ended, however, when lack of sponsorship forced Ganassi and partner Felix Sabates to shut down Franchitti’s team in the spring of 2008. Suddenly, Franchitti and most of his crewmen were among the nation’s unemployed.

“I wouldn’t change anything, and I’ve said that all along,” said Franchitti, 36, roundly second-guessed for his decision to compete in stock cars after 12 seasons at the top level of domestic open-wheel racing. “I wouldn’t change the decisions I made. I got to go do something completely different, have a bit of a holiday and realize what I was missing and come back with the best team in the paddock.

“I learned things as a driver. To drive in stock car, I got out of my comfort zone and I learned a lot of new things, and there’s things that I can apply to IndyCar. That’s made me a better driver, I think.”

Ganassi and Mike Hull, managing director of TCGR, recalled that the chain of events which brought Franchitti back to IndyCar began to unfold over Labor Day weekend of 2008. Dan Wheldon, who won the 2005 IndyCar title and Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Green, had just announced his intention to drive for Panther Racing in 2009, ending a three-year run with Ganassi.

“It was in Detroit Labor Day weekend. And Dario was there,” said Ganassi, referring to the Detroit Indy Grand Prix at Belle Isle Park. “I knew he was going to be there watching his brother (Marino) race. The (Wheldon) seat became available…and I said, ‘Hey, if you want the seat, it’s yours, just let me know in a couple hours.’^”

Hull knew Ganassi was following a philosophy espoused by mentor Morris “Mo” Nunn: Find the best available talent. Ironically, Hull wound up sitting with Franchitti on the back step of the Ganassi hauler after an IndyCar practice session.

“He (Franchitti) said, ‘Man, if I had to drive against the Dixon I see today versus the Dixon that I drove against last year, I’d have my hands full. I’d really like to be his teammate,’ ” said Hull, who quizzed Franchitti about his aborted NASCAR adventure. “He said, ‘Well, if I could be on a proper IndyCar team, that would be the best place in the world for me to drive.’ ” Franchitti also lamented there wasn’t a top-notch open-wheel ride available.

“So, I called Chip after the conversation,” Hull said, “and Chip said, ‘Invite him to dinner tonight and let’s make a deal.’ So on a cocktail napkin we made a deal. Chip’s right, we gave him two hours to sign at the end of the cocktail napkin. It was less than an 8-by-10 piece of paper that we actually made the deal on – and those are the best deals you make in racing – and it certainly turned out to be that deal.”

Despite a resume that included victory in the 2007 Indy 500, Franchitti said Ganassi put him through a thorough interview before offering that now infamous napkin-of-a-contract.

“He sat me down and grilled me pretty hard in Detroit: ‘Why do I want to come back to IndyCar? Was I up for the challenge and ready to do it again and give 100 percent?’^” Franchitti said. “I’m just glad they invited me back to come and play. I really enjoyed it. I wanted to be part of the unified series, the places we get to race at and the people I get to race against and the cars I get to drive. It’s pretty cool.

“We win and lose as a team. I know it’s a bit trite, but we win and lose as a team. I love being part of a team, I really…people think sometimes this is an individual sport, but this is a team sport, and I love being part of a team. When a team is working well, it’s a great thing. It’s a cool thing to be a part of.”

Including its tenure in the CART/Champ Car World Series, Target Chip Ganassi Racing has been home to a list of champions including Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi. Ganassi famously is on record that he’d hire a Martian if he thought the alien could “push the button.”

“We’ve had really talented guys drive our cars, very talented. And that is an enormous difference,” Hull said. “But the difference that we have today, and I believe the reason that we won (this title), is because we have two drivers (Franchitti and Dixon) who have accomplished very similar things in their careers, and that puts the pressure in a different area, for their drive, their driving style and where they’re trying to go.

“They both won the Indy 500, they’ve both won championships, they’ve both won races around the world. Their open-wheel experience is very similar one to the other. So there’s no pressure there to win again, and sometimes that’s a bad thing because it creates complacency. But in these two guys, they absolutely rejoice in what the other guy does, and that’s very unique.

“We’ll be at a meeting with the two drivers and the engineers and some of the managers, and in years past with talented guys, there would be that one percent inside the vest that wouldn’t be given up, literally. We’d see it on the racetrack. But with these two guys, it’s 101 percent. They never have held back from each other. And that’s the reason that we’ve done what we’ve done this year.”

Ganassi, who qualified for five Indy 500 starts in the 1980s before retiring to the boardroom, said this championship is sweet from a corporate standpoint given the current economy.

“I don’t think anybody would be surprised that the purse strings were a little tighter this year around the race game than they were in the past,” Ganassi said. “We challenged – Mike Hull and I – challenged the team to work on a little tighter budget, and the guys all came through and did it. And it didn’t affect the performance.

“So when I look back on the season, that’s kind of what I see. You can talk about 10 wins, and it’s great to be a part of that. But more importantly, I look at it on a longer-term basis, and I know that our team was challenged at the beginning of the season to perform with maybe not the tools that I’ve been able to give them in the past to perform with, and they still came through.”

IndyCar Series Award Winners

Championship driver: Dario Franchitti

Herff Jones Championship Driver Award (ring valued at $5,000): Dario Franchitti

Ritmo Mundo Championship Driver Award (diamond watch valued at $100,000): Dario Franchitti

Canon Championship Award (package valued at $2,000): Dario Franchitti and Kevin O’Donnell

Championship team: Target Chip Ganassi Racing

Championship team sponsor: Target Chip Ganassi Club

Championship team managers: Scott Harner and Barry Wanser

Chief Mechanic of the Year Award: Kevin O’Donnell

Apex-Brasil Rookie of the Year Award ($25,000): Raphael Matos, Luczo Dragon Racing

Second-place championship driver: Scott Dixon

Second-place championship team: Target Chip Ganassi Racing

Third-place championship driver: Ryan Briscoe

Third-place championship team: Team Penske

BOSCH Platinum Award ($10,000 for highest-finishing driver using Bosch spark plugs): Dario Franchitti

Raybestos Road & Street Course Challenge: Ryan Briscoe

Xtrac Championship Award ($5,000 for driver who won most Xtrac Awards during 2009): Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing

Manufacturer Recognition Awards: Honda, Firestone, Delphi, Dallara, Xtrac, and K&N Filters

Firestone Indy Lights Award Winners

Championship driver (mini Firehawk Cup): J.R. Hildebrand

Herff Jones Championship Driver Award (ring valued at $4,000): J.R. Hildebrand

Ritmo Mundo Championship Driver Award (watch valued at $25,000): J.R. Hildebrand

Championship team (mini Firehawk Cup): Andretti Green Racing/AFS Racing

Mo’sGold Chief Mechanic of the Year ($5,000): Jayson Madison

Second-place championship driver: James Davison

Second-place championship team: Vision Racing

Third-place championship driver: Sebastian Saavedra

Third-place championship team: AFS Racing Inc./Andretti Green Racing

Firestone Painting Award: J.R. Hildebrand

Force for Earth Hard Charger ($5,000): Mario Romancini, RLR/Andersen Racing

Gregory & Appel “Securing Tomorrow” Award ($5,000): J.R. Hildebrand

Lucas Oil Frequent Pole-sitter Award ($5,000): J.R. Hildebrand

Mesco Building Solutions “Building for the Future” Rookie of the Year ($10,000): Sebastian Saavedra

National City Community Leader Award ($5,000): Sam Schmidt Motorsports

Palmer Family Frequent Podium Award ($5,000): J.R. Hildebrand

Raybestos Road & Street Course Challenge (10,000): J.R. Hildebrand

Sunoco Most Improved Driver ($10,000): J.R. Hildebrand

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 12 2009
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