Win and out

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Tim Tuttle

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Dario Franchitti has won the IndyCar title a decade after moving to America. Now he’s likely to make a switch to the USA’s biggest crowd-puller: NASCAR

By Tim Tuttle

Dario Franchitti was thinking retirement when he sat down with Andretti Green Racing at the end of the 2005 season. “We were just talking about the following year,” Franchitti said. “We had just won at Fontana [California], hadn’t we? I was feeling good about things. I wasn’t sure how much more I wanted to do.”

Franchitti was giving the team plenty of advance warning that 2006 could be his final season in the IndyCar Series. But a winless campaign that year changed Franchitti’s mind, reinvigorating his competitive fire.

“When we had the fairly average year we had last year, my motivation came back stronger than ever,” he explained.

It became the springboard that launched the Edinburgh driver to a magnificent 2007 season, by far the best of his career. Franchitti won the Indianapolis 500 in May and completed his sweep of the IndyCar honours by winning the championship in dramatic fashion at Chicagoland. It was his first crown since winning British Formula Vauxhall Lotus in 1993.

Franchitti had a three-point lead over Scott Dixon going into the 17th and final race of the season. He was running second to Dixon with half a lap to go on the 1.5-mile oval track – and finishing second meant losing the championship – when Dixon ran out of fuel.

“Coming down to the last lap, I knew what I had to do,” Franchitti said. “I drafted him and just pulled out [to the outside] into Turn 3. Just as I pulled out, I saw his car twitch. With losing the drive, he shot up the track, so I had to avoid him and went higher than I would have liked. Once I corrected that, I knew that the race and the championship were mine. I kind of went crazy from there to the finish line. There was a lot of screaming and fist pumping.”

Franchitti’s win was his fourth of the year, his most in a season since coming to the USA in 1997. He had four wins in 50 previous IndyCar Series starts, and 10 from 114 starts in CART’s Champ Car Series, in which he drove from 1997 to 2002. Indianapolis was the big prize for Franchitti, but the title was a close second.

“I’m happier than I thought I would be,” he said. “I thought winning the Indy 500 was a great feeling. But this is different. I think because it’s the whole year rolled into one, it means a hell of a lot. To accomplish both is massive.”

Franchitti’s season was spectacular and scary. He went airborne twice after wheel-to-wheel contact at 200mph, taking off like a jet fighter, flipping and landing upside down. He wasn’t injured, but he was shaken.

“For me, the biggest mental challenge this year was jumping in the car in Kentucky having just flipped the thing five days earlier in Michigan,” Franchitti explained. “To get over that barrier, I thought if I could do that, I should be OK with anything thrown at me.”

Franchitti is not expected to return to try for a second IndyCar title. Multiple sources say he is headed for NASCAR’s top-level Nextel Cup (to be renamed Sprint Cup in 2008) with Chip Ganassi. The news stunned the IndyCar paddock.

“Is that really true?” IndyCar driver Scott Sharp asked. “It seems like it’s crazy to start at that level without doing stock car racing before.”

With the exception of two seasons in German and FIA Touring Cars in 1995 and 1996, Franchitti has been a formula car driver his entire career. The question is – why switch to a series with 3400lb full-bodied behemoths with a 36-race schedule from February to November? 

Nextel Cup drivers are the best paid in America, with an earnings potential of about $18-20 million in a championship season and $5-6m on average. But Franchitti has already made a bundle in the USA, including an estimated $4m this season. He flies his own helicopter and collects Ferraris. And he’s married to actress Ashley Judd, who makes millions per movie. 

“I don’t think Dario is doing it for the money,” Sharp said. “He’s pretty good friends with [Juan Pablo] Montoya and they’ve been talking. Maybe Montoya has told him what a great time he’s having in NASCAR.”

Franchitti has driven for the same organisation since 1998. He originally joined Team Green, and when Barry Green sold the team in 2002 to Michael Andretti, Kim Green (his brother) and Kevin Savoree, Franchitti stayed.

“He’s been like family,” Andretti said.

Most involved in IndyCar thought Franchitti would stay in the series for 2008, with Andretti Green Racing’s American Le Mans sports car team the first alternative. Franchitti had said he was interested in NASCAR and was talking with team owner Richard Childress, but few took him seriously.

Ganassi lured Montoya from F1 to NASCAR and the Colombian has surprised with a solid and smooth transition. He won one race in both the Nextel Cup and the second-tier Busch Series. Ganassi has a three-car team and an open seat following the release of David Stremme.

Particularly surprising is Franchitti’s willingness to run 34 ovals a year in the Sprint Cup. His background is road racing and he welcomed the addition of road course tracks to the IndyCar schedule three years ago.

Franchitti is expected to begin driving in the Busch Series this autumn. He needs to learn and NASCAR won’t let him race in the Daytona 500, the series’ biggest race which opens the season in February, without stock car experience. Franchitti’s contract with AGR doesn’t end until December 1, which means Ganassi will have to negotiate a release. Ganassi went through the same process with Montoya last year. Ganassi and Franchitti both declined to comment at Chicagoland, but neither denied it, either.

“I’m not going to talk about next year,” Franchitti said. “I’m going to enjoy having won this championship.”

Sam Hornish Jnr is also expected to defect from IndyCar to NASCAR. Hornish drives for Roger Penske’s powerhouse organisation which, like Ganassi, operates in both IndyCar and NASCAR. Hornish has been driving in Busch races and will make his Nextel Cup debut this autumn. He’s IndyCar’s biggest American star, the winner of three championships and the 2006 Indy 500.

The loss of Franchitti and Hornish means IndyCar won’t have its champion or Indy winner from the last two seasons, a difficult situation for a series desperate to gain more sponsorship and public support. But the series still has a solid line-up with 2005 Indy and series champion Dan Wheldon and 2003 series winner Dixon at Ganassi, double Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves at Penske, 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice at Dreyer and Reinbold, 2004 series winner Tony Kanaan at Andretti Green and the very popular Danica Patrick also at Andretti Green.

Australian Ryan Briscoe is considered the leading contender to replace Hornish. Briton Alex Lloyd won the Indy Pro Series, IndyCar’s primary development series, this season and he’s expected to land a full-time drive in IndyCar.

IndyCar will survive losing Franchitti and Hornish, but their leaving reinforces the fact that the premier series in America is NASCAR’s.

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