It’s Party Time For IndyCar Champ Franchitti

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 3 2010

Dario Franchitti celebrates with wife Ashley Judd and team owner Chip Ganassi. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

In celebration of his first two IZOD IndyCar Series championships, Dario Franchitti’s open-wheel peers conspired to serve him with a pie in the face and dunk him fully-clothed into a swimming pool.

“God, I forgot about that,” Franchitti deadpanned Saturday night, shortly after securing his record-tying third driver’s championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

So, what in the name of The Three Stooges possibly could be in store for poor Dario during Sunday’s post-season party?

“I’m glad to see that my watch is still waterproof,” said Franchitti, whose eighth-place finish in the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 allowed him to overhaul championship leader Will Power and his disabled, 25th-place car by five points. “I’m going to be this smart – I’ll wear old clothes to start the night off and bring a change of clothes with me, because I guarantee that (Tony) Kanaan, (Scott) Dixon…all my friends will throw me in the pool.

“So, as long as that’s all they do and they don’t tie me to a rogue boat and set me adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, we’ll be all right.”

Dixon might be due for a dunking of his own after winning the season-ender on the 1.5-mile HMS oval, punctuating an IndyCar season during which the Target Twins produced Franchitti’s two poles and three wins apiece for team-owner Chip Ganassi and Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Having already secured the bonus point for winning the PEAK Performance Pole Award, Franchitti needed to lead the most laps and outpace Power in the 200-lapper in South Florida. Job One was achieved on Lap 118 when Franchitti clinched two points for leading the most laps, while still on-pace to win the race. That would have sealed the deal no matter where Power finished.

But that point became moot when Power, of Team Penske, brushed the Turn 4 wall on Lap 135 while running fourth. The contact bent the right-rear wishbone of Power’s No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. His crew wheeled the car behind the wall and made the necessary parts change in 5 minutes, 6 seconds. After testing the repair for a few laps under caution, Power brought the car into his pit stall and climbed out.

Power – who posted five victories in his first full season with the Penske juggernaut – suffered his first DNF of 2010 in the biggest race of his career. And Franchitti, who started the race 11 points in arrears of the Australian, had completed another come-from-way-back title run.

Dixon, who started alongside pole-sitter Franchitti on the front row, held off Andretti Autosport teammates Danica Patrick, who tied her season-high of second, and Kanaan to win his third race of the season. Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe finished fourth and teammate Helio Castroneves was fifth. Alex Lloyd of Dale Coyne Racing clinched the Rookie of the Year award with a 12th-place finish.

Franchitti, meanwhile, added another line to a remarkable racing resume that includes two Indianapolis 500 victories. More than ever, Franchitti is being mentioned in the same breath as fellow-Scotsman Jim Clark, the Formula One and Indy 500 hero of Dario’s youth.

“Look back to the start of 2007, I hadn’t won a championship,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Dallara/Honda. “Won a lot of races, not a championship or Indy 500. Now we find ourselves with two 500s and three championships.

“I’m just going to enjoy it. I think I’m just going to let it sink in, enjoy it. And if you ask me that question maybe starting next year I’ll give you a better answer. But I’m very proud of the achievement. And it’s an absolute honor to get to drive for the Target team. And the equipment they give me. And that feeling of success is great.”

For the record, Franchitti is just the second driver to win three IndyCar Series championships, joining Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, 2002, 2006). Franchitti is just the second driver to win consecutive IndyCar championships, again joining Sudden Sam (2001, 2002). And Franchitti has won the IndyCar championship in the last three seasons in which he has competed in the series. He drove in NASCAR in 2008 for team-owner Ganassi, who won both the Sprint Cup Series’ Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 earlier this season with Jamie McMurray.

This is the fourth IndyCar championship for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, a series record. Franchitti won in 2009 and 2010, Dixon in 2003 and 2008. TCGR and Andretti Green Racing/Andretti Autosport were tied with three titles entering Saturday night’s race.

This also is the third consecutive IndyCar championship for the Ganassi camp, as Franchitti won in 2009 and 2010 and Dixon in 2008. It’s the first time any IndyCar team has won three straight titles dating to the Indy Racing League’s inaugural season of 1996.

Franchitti said that while comparing his previous championships in 2007 and 2009 is difficult, he did allow that the competition level has increased exponentially.

“For whatever reason, we at Team Target – both Scott and myself – maybe didn’t have the speed advantage we had last year,” Franchitti said. “In some cases we have to work harder to finish in the top five at races.

“So, to come away with a championship after a season like that is very satisfying. And we look back to Iowa and think to that gearbox (and season-low 18th-place finish) that took a lot of points away, and from then on it was a real struggle. But nobody on the Target team gave up. We did our best every single week. We find ourselves here again. It was pretty cool. Great to be out there enjoying that feeling and that moment with my family, my friends, my teammates…it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Franchitti credited both Dixon and Kanaan with racing him hard and clean. “And I didn’t want to kind of win it doing what we did there…after Will had his problem,” Franchitti said. “But the guys were just extra cautious, didn’t want me running out of fuel. Took an extra pit stop. Put me back in the pack and amongst all the madness.

“So we had a car that we knew could run up-front all night. But then they told me those last 30 laps you’ve got to finish 10th here. You’re ninth, and I passed one guy and now you’re eighth. So there was no _ it would have been nice to find our way back up-front again, but we wanted to win the big prize tonight.”

Franchitti’s five-point championship margin (602-597) over Power is the second-closest in series history. Scott Sharp and Buzz Calkins tied for the championship with 246 points during the three-race inaugural season in 1996. Hornish Jr. won the title for Team Penske on a tiebreaker – most victories – over Dan Wheldon of Ganassi Racing when both finished with 475 points in 2006.

Franchitti scored 307 points on road courses and 295 on ovals this season en route to winning the inaugural A.J. Foyt Oval Championship Trophy. Power scored 412 points on road courses en route to the inaugural Mario Andretti Road Championship Trophy, and 185 on ovals. Power, 29, capped an otherwise brilliant breakout season with a “very disappointing” outcome at HMS.

“I had come to the realization at – what lap it was, 120 or something – that Dario had led the most laps,” said Power, who finished the season with five wins, eight poles and 11 top-fives. “We didn’t really have the car to win. So I had…I was pushing it as hard as I could. And I was trying to get around a couple of back-markers, and they were running different lines. And it took a bit of my air away and I ended up in the gray. I was struggling to run anywhere but the top line well anyway.

“Yeah, you know, like I predicted at the beginning of the season, it was the guy and team who made the least amount of mistakes that would win the championship. But I think next year I’ll come back very strong.”

Power ended the season without realizing another goal – winning his first career IndyCar race on an oval. “I think the confidence on the ovals…I’ve really learned an unbelievable amount this year,” said Power, who qualified third. “And I knew going into this year that was going to be the weak point. No question. But now I feel I’m on-par with the other guys. Absolutely. And I know next year it will be a tough fight. I think that as a team we’ve learned a lot this year as well.

“You definitely look back and review the year and work out where you can be stronger. Every time I leave a track, I think, man, I always come back to the track next year knowing where I’ve got to pick up time. And I usually do. That happens every year for me. So I seem to get quicker and quicker every time I go back to a track just from track knowledge. So I never stop thinking about motorsports. I never stop talking about it. I love it. And I’ll come back and be very strong next year.”

Franchitti said his immediate reaction to Power’s wall-scraping moment was totally in-the-moment.

” ’OK, how bad is it? What’s this going to mean?’ ” Franchitti relayed over his radio. “Then I immediately put it out of my head; you can’t think about that. Leading up to this race, I’m not going to think about what he’s doing. I immediately put that out of my head. The guys came out eventually and said he’s behind the wall. And then I came back on the radio, I said, ‘Is he still behind the wall?’ They said yep. That gave me some idea of what was going on. Shortly after that they told me what position I had to finish.

“And then again I was more trying to keep out of trouble. The 18 car (of Milka Duno) spun and hit the wall, I don’t know, two feet in front of me. That was a little too close for comfort.”

Franchitti reiterated that avoiding Duno’s spin was a key difference in the outcome, given Power’s fate. “Absolutely, Will has been a terrific competitor all season,” Franchitti said. “It’s his first season back from the back injury. And he did a great job all season long and was a great competitor. And him and Team Penske are going to come back stronger, so we at Team Target will have to push harder if we want to beat him next year.”

Power exited the final road-course event of the season at Infineon Raceway on Aug. 22 with a comfortable 59-point lead. Over the course of the three ensuing oval-track events, Franchitti managed to whittle the deficit to 12 points. He earned another point for qualifying on-pole Friday afternoon and strapped in on Saturday with all the savvy of a two-time champ.

“At no point did I freak out,”  said Franchitti, alluding to Power’s biggest lead. “I was very aware that I might not win the championship. But there was no point in freaking out about that if it was the situation we found ourselves in. That was it. I just looked at it as an obstacle and see if we could catch him again. If we couldn’t, he would win the championship. But we gave it our best effort. And we saw the results.

“I think everybody in the team, they just buckled down, every single person. I’ll tell you tonight it was a lot easier out here when you’ve got Scott Dixon backing it up than it is racing against him for a championship. A lot more comfortable. Because he’s tough out there.”

Dixon – who lost the 2007 and 2009 titles to Franchitti by a combined 24 points – said his 37-year-old teammate continues to compete like a driver fighting for his next contract.

“You would have to say that,”  said Dixon, whose 24th career IndyCar victory extended his series record. “You know, I think he’s definitely come on. They say that kind of about triathletes, your mid-30s are kind of your peak. He’s getting close to 40. So he’s stretching the window. And I think it’s good for a lot of us guys that have been around for a while. Because it at least gives the team owners some hope that we can still continue to do it.

“But, yeah, I think the determining factor for a lot of people when they get to that age, if they have the will to do it, and you know, whether they want to get up and train and do those things and make it worthwhile. And Dario, still you can see the fire. And you can see that he’s an extremely competitive person. Right now, you’d have to say that he’s at his peak.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 3 2010
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