Franchitti Says He’s Not In Jim Clark’s Class

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 3 2010

Dario Franchitti has won two Indianapolis 500s, but does that make him an all-timer? (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – His second Indianapolis 500 victory has qualified Dario Franchitti for “Legend of the Brickyard” status.

Then again, maybe not so fast. Franchitti became only the eighth driver in the 94-year history of the race to record at least two wins in the Memorial Weekend classic, a list that includes Tommy Milton, Bill Vukovich, Rodger Ward, Gordon Johncock, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr. and Arie Luyendyk.

While the comparisons are inevitable, Franchitti politely insisted they are not totally welcomed.

“I get kind of embarrassed by it, honestly,” Franchitti said Wednesday afternoon during a promotional appearance in downtown Fort Worth. “I looked at the list of two-time winners the other night and there was Arie and those type of guys…and I just thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool.’ You know, I think anybody who’s won the Indy 500 whether it’s one or four times or two times – whatever – it’s a very special club to be a member of. And as I’ve said, it’s a privilege.”

Furthermore, Franchitti – the two-time and reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion – totally downplayed any comparison with his personal heroes from Scotland. Topping that list is Jim Clark, who won the 1965 Indy 500 in dominating fashion in his third attempt while driving the legendary No. 82 Lotus/Ford entered by Colin Chapman.

“Jimmy Clark won two World Championships in Formula One, too,” said Franchitti, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland. “The thing we’ve got in common is we’re from Scotland. But Jimmy Clark was, in my opinion, the greatest ever. Closely followed by Jackie Stewart, another Scotsman.”

Clark made five Indy 500 starts between 1963 and 1967, a run that included runnerup finishes as a rookie in 1963 – when he and Californian Dan Gurney led the rear-engine revolution at Indy – and as defending champion in 1966. Clark was killed during a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, Germany, on April 7, 1968.

Sir John Young Stewart – The Flying Scot – competed in the 1966 and 1967 Indy 500s, with a career-best finish of sixth during the former.  A three-time F1 World Driving Champion, Jackie Stewart is one of international motorsports enduring ambassadors.

“Those guys, as far as I’m concerned, are in the stratosphere,” said Franchitti, 36. “They’re two of the best-ever and…and it’s a privilege to follow in their footsteps as far as, you know, flying the flag for Scotland.”

Franchitti, who joined team-owner Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR operation in 2008, returned to IndyCar last year with the same owner in spectacular fashion. The 2007 IndyCar champion with Andretti Green Racing, Franchitti authored a career-best season in ’09 featuring five poles and five wins. On Sunday, Franchitti became the 19th driver to score multiple victories in the Indy 500.

“It’s something you dream about doing,” said Fort Worth’s Johnny Rutherford, one of six three-time Indy 500 champions. “Number One is making your first Indianapolis 500 and then doing well there. Running all day, finishing the race. Dario does well in anything he drives. And that’s the secret. It’s a passion with you, and if you don’t have the passion for something, you shouldn’t mess around with it.”

Franchitti said his job is passionately simple. “My job is to do what we did on Sunday,” Franchitti said. “My team’s job is to do what they did on Sunday. And then we’ve got to try and do it on Saturday night again.” Franchitti was referring to Round 7 of the IndyCar schedule, the Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s the season’s first night race, and only six days removed from Dario’s victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“Yeah, I’ve had not a bad week,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Target Dallara/Honda fielded by Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “Winning the Indy 500 will definitely improve your mood, no doubt about it. It’s a highly stressful couple of weeks at Indianapolis but when you cross that finish line first, it makes it all worthwhile. The feeling of crossing the line and driving into Victory Circle and seeing all the people I’ve talked about _ my team, my family, my friends _ and I get to drink the milk. That tastes just as good the second time. Just every bit as good. That was really cool.”

Franchitti received a break of sorts this week, when IndyCar officials opted to delay the usual Indy 500 champion’s tour of media capital New York City until next week.

“Got to go home to Nashville on Monday night and I was sitting in the house (Tuesday) thinking about the race,” said Franchitti, who led six times for a race-high 155 laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “And I thought to myself, ‘Right. You’re going to have to get your head in-gear here for Texas this weekend.’ I think it’s our second-biggest race as far as the crowd, after Indianapolis, but I got to get my head into gear here.

“It’s a race I haven’t won yet, (have) a couple of pole positions but never crossed the finish line first. So I got my head into gear, I hope. And ready to go on Saturday night.”

Franchitti trails Will Power, a two-time race-winner for Team Penske this season, by 11 points (227-216) in the driver’s championship heading into the scheduled 228-lapper. A field of 26 cars has been entered for the 21st IndyCar Series race at TMS. It also will be the 14th edition of an event billed as “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race.”

Franchitti has made six IndyCar starts on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval, including poles in 2004 and last June. His best finish was second in the 2004 Bombardier Learjet 500k, a race won by former Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan by 0.2578-seconds.

“We race quite a few one-and-a-half-milers, and Chicago has got quite a high-bank, too, a very similar track,”  Franchitti said. “The big difference with Texas is the transition off of Turn 2 where it flattens out very, very quickly. That challenges the engineers and challenges the drivers to have a car that will get off Turn 2 and also work on the rest of the track.”

Franchitti was among a group of drivers who panned last year’s race – won by Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves – as nothing more than a no-passing parade that was frustrating for anyone not in the lead and a poor show for the fans. Indy Racing League officials took note and later approved aerodynamic changes and implementation of the Honda Overtake Assist/“push-to-pass” option in a bid to improve overtaking and the quality of racing.

“A lot has changed in the specification of the cars since the Texas race last year,” said Franchitti, who finished fifth here in 2009. “The people in the IndyCar Series on the technical side listened to our complaints and listened to the fans complaints and made some aerodynamic adjustments to the car, they implemented push-to-pass, and we’ve seen some pretty exciting races. The first one was Kentucky last year, it was an absolute barn-burner, and I think we’re going to see more of that because of the changes those guys made.”

Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske held off Ed Carpenter, then of Vision Racing, to win by 0.1062-seconds on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway layout on Aug. 1. It was the 11th-closest finish in series history. “The fact that they (IRL officials) listened to everybody and made those changes was very impressive,” said Franchitti, who finished sixth that night.

IndyCar teams will have only a one-hour practice on Friday afternoon before qualifying. IRL officials have yet to announce how many push-to-pass opportunities teams will have Saturday night. “I think it’s something that will probably play a part in the race this weekend,” said Franchitti, who has led 40 laps at TMS. “It’s not going to make up for an ill-handling car. You’ve got to have a good-handling car to win here at Texas. But that extra speed might be the difference between finishing first and second.”

Franchitti started third and finished second in the season’s opening oval-track race at Kansas Speedway, another 1.5-mile oval where Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon took the win. “Some races you use it (push-to-pass) a lot,” Franchitti said. “At Kansas, for instance, I didn’t use it until the last five laps and I used about five of them in those five laps. Indy, I only used six or something. It’s always nice to keep one in reserve, just in case you need it.”

Franchitti earned $2,752,055 from an overall purse of $13,592,815 for an Indy 500 victory that was shaping up as a duel between himself and Kanaan until the Brazilian pitted for fuel on Lap 196 of 200. Franchitti went on to win under caution following a final-lap crash between Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“There was times in the last 13 laps I’d have given $2.75 million to have another gallon of fuel,” Franchitti joked. “But luckily we didn’t need it so I’m glad I didn’t make that trade. Even if it had gone green to the finish we had more than enough. A lot of times in races I would have given up any of the prize money to go from second to first or a couple of places. It’s all about the competition. Afterwards, the prize money is nice, for sure. But during the race it doesn’t matter.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 3 2010
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