Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dario Franchitti on the road from NASCAR to the top of the IndyCar Series

Dario Franchitti won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2009. Last year, it wasn’t such a great race.
Franchitti finished 12th last year and called it a disastrous weekend.
“We struggled. We found out later I had broken my thumb the week before at St. Pete,” said Franchitti, the reigning and three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion. “I hadn’t realized. We, the 10 car, we struggled. And I thought Ryan did a great job. Ryan was a very deserving winner last year. No doubt.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay was the surprise winner of the 2010 Grand Prix of Long Beach. Franchitti went on to win the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship, his second in a row.
It would be hard to argue that Franchitti isn’t the best open-wheel racer in the world right now. He is definitely the top driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series and probably has been for the past two years.
He also won the IndyCar Series championship in 2007 when he was driving for Andretti Green Racing, giving him three of the past four titles. The year he didn’t win the IndyCar Series championship, Franchitti dabbled in NASCAR, racing for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series in 2008.
The results in NASCAR were far from stellar. He broke his ankle in a crash. His team never secured the funding to race competitively. By most accounts, Franchitti’s venture into NASCAR was more of a disaster than last year’s Long Beach race.
When asked if he has been asked to return to NASCAR and if would ever consider returning to NASCAR, he said, “Yes and no, in that order.”
“When I started doing that, I wanted to be successful,” Franchitti said during a visit to Los Angeles and LA Live to promote the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April and the start of the IZOD IndyCar Series season in St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 27. “Obviously, I wanted to learn, do all that stuff. I was never really given the chance to do it, because of breaking my ankle, not having a sponsor. I think some people have kind of started painting it worse than it was. Ultimately with the Nationwide thing, last couple of races, I did qualify on the front row at Bristol. Qualified on the pole at Watkins Glen. Led a bunch of laps at Atlanta. Led a bunch of laps at Bristol, 18 laps. It wasn’t as bad as people made out.”
Since returning to open-wheel racing and the IndyCar Series, Franchitti has won two championships and two Indinapolis 500s. He was already an accomplished driver with Andretti Green Racing before his NASCAR stint. When he returned to the IndyCar Series, with Chip Ganassi’s Target team, Franchitti became the driver to beat. If anything, his struggles in NASCAR made Franchitti a better open-wheel racer.
“What it showed me was, I love Indy car racing. I love driving the car,” Franchitti said. “I love the diverse schedule. When I got into NASCAR, the two series gots together, which wasn’t lost on me, the irony of that whole thing. You wait 10 years for this thing to come together, you leave, and it comes together. It made me realize what I was missing.”
The timing of his switch from open-wheel racing to stock car racing couldn’t have been worse. The same year he started racing in NASCAR, the Champ Car and IndyCar series merged, ending a decade-long split of open-wheel racing in the United States. It didn’t take long for Franchitti to return to the type of racing he loves most.
“Had I not gone to NASCAR, I don’t think it would have set the change of events that allowed me to come and drive for the Target team,” Franchitti said. “The way it all worked, with me going away, with Chip coming back to Indy car. Had I stayed at Andretti Green, I don’t think I would have made the progressions to drive for Chip. It all worked out for me.”
Franchitti has won 26 open-wheel races in his career. He has won two Indy 500s and three IndyCar Series championships. He has won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. What is left for Franchitti to accomplish in his racing career? Perhaps the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
“I’d love to do that. I’d love to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” Franchitti said. “I’ve managed to win at Daytona. Won a class at Sebring. It would be nice to go to Le Mans and try to do that. It’s such a great race. I went there as a spectator in ‘09. My little brother was driving an Aston-Martin and I watched him.”

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