Franchitti Putting NASCAR In Rear-View Mirror

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 21 2009
Dario Franchitti in the winner's circle at Iowa. (IndyCar Series photo by Ron McQueeney)

Dario Franchitti in the winner's circle at Iowa. (IndyCar Series photo by Ron McQueeney)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

With each IndyCar Series victory this season, the memories of Dario Franchitti’s Not-So-Great NASCAR Adventure continue to fade.

Franchitti scored his second IndyCar win of 2009, and second in as many starts at Iowa Speedway, Sunday afternoon with a workmanlike effort in the Iowa Corn Indy 250. Franchitti finished 5.0132 seconds ahead of Ryan Briscoe, in large part to a quick green flag pit stop by his Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew on Lap 196 of 250.

Franchitti trailed Briscoe, of Team Penske, by less than a second as those stops began, but led by more than a second when they were completed. As the drivers cycled through lapped traffic over the final 50 laps, Franchitti padded his lead to a comfortable margin.

“The Target guys today were phenomenal,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Tom Tom Dallara/Honda. “That was really the key – good in-lap, good out-lap on cold tires and amazing pit stops. The car wasn’t great there, and the Target guys made a couple of adjustments for that last stop.

“The car, the last stop with those changes, was fantastic, and I was able to pull away and have a good gap on Ryan. He was catching me a little bit. And I was able to get through traffic really well and then go. I’m so delighted to be sitting here.”

Franchitti won on the 0.894-mile oval in Newton, Iowa, in 2007 but was out of the series last year while driving for team-owner Chip Ganassi in NASCAR. That bold career switch by Franchitti, the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion, ended when Ganassi opted to shut down Franchitti’s Dodge Sprint Cup team during the season because of a lack of sponsorship.

“Well, I was very fortunate to have Chip come up and ask me to drive this car, the 10 car for Team Target,” said Franchitti, who earned the 10th victory of his IndyCar career and second of ‘09.The Scotsman also won on the Streets of Long Beach on April 19th in his second start for Ganassi.

“I competed against the team in the IndyCar Series for a long, long time and CART before that,” said Franchitti, who recorded the 28th series victory for TCGR and the team’s fourth of 2009. “I knew how good the team was. So unfortunately for all the reasons we know, the trip to NASCAR didn’t work out. When Chip started asking me these questions, it started to intrigue me. Then I went to the race in Detroit (last summer) and that was it. As soon as I saw the cars running on the track, it was a done deal. And I’m really, really glad.

“From the first time I jumped in the car, I’m so glad I made the choice to come back. And I’m loving it. I really enjoy driving Indy cars, racing in the IndyCar Series, and racing against the people that I get to.”

Franchitti’s victory pulled him within three points of championship leader Briscoe (241-238), who for the third consecutive race led the most laps but finished second. Andretti Green Racing’s Hideki Mutoh finished third, one spot lower than his career-best result at the track last year. Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon placed fourth.

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who started on-pole based upon entrant points after qualifying was cancelled Saturday due to water seepage on the track, finished seventh. The Brazilian made contact with Scott Dixon of Ganassi Racing early in the race, forcing both cars to pit for repairs. Dixon finished fifth, his fourth top-five of the season.

The race got off to a rough start with four caution periods during the first 55 laps but finished with stints of 56 and 127 consecutive green-flag laps.

“It was really tough for the start of the race,” said Briscoe, driver of the No. 6 Dallara/Honda. “With all the rain we’ve had the track was really green, so it was very slippery. I think that’s why we saw the cautions we did, and then the track just got faster as the day went on.”

Briscoe said he started the race with a “massive push” in his car. Bottom line, Briscoe admitted, Franchitti proved better on cold tires all day.

“It actually took a while today until I really found where I needed the car to be,” Briscoe said. “Once I did though, we were lightning quick.

“The last pit stop of the day is always most crucial. We had a great pit stop. I probably left a little bit on the table coming in off the backstraight. It was the first time I had really gotten the chance to practice doing it. We missed in the first practice session (Saturday), and that’s when we really go out there and practice the in-and-out laps. I think with Dario having tested here last week, I’m sure he had many hundreds of laps and many out-and-ins where he was able to make a little bit of a difference for me at that point.

“But we had a great battle at the end there with Dario. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough for him. I was hoping with the lapped traffic we were coming up on at the end I was going to be able to catch him like the previous stint and get around him, but he actually got the luck of the draw with the traffic, and was able to extend the lead. So it was tough. But I knew where the others were and it was a pretty good day to come in second and extend the points lead.”

Briscoe, a native of Australia, is the first driver to hold the points lead for two consecutive races this season.

Meanwhile, Mutoh celebrated his season-best third. The native of Japan logged his career-best series finish of second at Iowa Speedway last year. Mutoh was among only four drivers to finish on the lead lap.

“We had a lot of accidents today, but I just stayed out of trouble,” said Mutoh, driver of the No. 27 Formula Dream Dallara/Honda. “And my guys did a fantastic job at pit stops. So I really appreciate my guys and I can gain position there. And also my car was really good handling, really good, and I could pass a few cars at the restart. And my goal this weekend was a podium finish, so now I’m here and I’m really happy.”

Wheldon’s fourth-place run was his sixth consecutive top-10 finish.

“It’s a good result for Panther Racing and the National Guard; to finish fourth here with this level of competition is something we can build on,” said Wheldon, the Englishman who sits sixth in points. “My race was relatively low-key. I was loose at the start of each stint, but once the car settled down it was good. I’ll take a top-five, and it’s some good momentum to build upon.

“This is a good track. As it starts to lose even more grip, it’s going to become even more fun. I know a lot of people say that Iowa is in the middle of nowhere, but you know what, we get such a great crowd and they’re so enthusiastic. As a driver you could put me in paradise, but if there’s nobody in the grandstands then it’s not good racing.”

Tomas Scheckter finished sixth, the South African’s best result since logging a fifth at Kentucky Speedway in 2007. It is the best finish for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing since a fourth last year at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International with driver Buddy Rice.

Scheckter’s Dreyer & Reinbold rookie teammate, Mike Conway, finished a career-best eighth – the Englishman’s his first top-10 of his IndyCar career. The last time Dreyer & Reinbold had two cars finish in the top 10 was at last year’s Indianapolis 500, when Rice placed eighth and Townsend Bell was 10th.

Andretti Green Racing’s Danica Patrick finished ninth. She and Wheldon lead all drivers with six consecutive top-10 finishes. Patrick, meanwhile, led the race twice– her first laps at the point since Kentucky in 2008.

Franchitti said the unique design of former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace’s track, along with the G-loads and Midwest heat, had left him drained.

“I’m pretty tired, actually,” Franchitti said. “I was a little bit dizzy when I got out of the car, and it’s been a while since I felt that.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 21 2009
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