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Thursday, July 30, 2009
Updated: August 7, 12:20 PM ET
Franchitti back where he belongs

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

It was October 2007, and Dario Franchitti was Superman. He had just claimed his first IndyCar championship in a dream season that included four victories and was highlighted, of course, by a soggy sundress and a sip of milk at Indy. Funny thing is, that dream season almost didn't happen. And had it not, you can't help but wonder what might have been.

Before that championship campaign, Franchitti had tossed around the idea of a move to NASCAR. He even was considered the lead candidate to man Chip Ganassi's No. 42 Dodge in '07. Then Juan Pablo Montoya called Ganassi, his old CART owner, with news he was on the market. Hence, Franchitti shelved the NASCAR plan.

It worked out for the best, but the itch for a new challenge was still there. And when another opportunity arose at Ganassi for the 2008 season, he pounced. He had nothing left to prove in open-wheel racing. He was ready for fenders. Or so he thought.

He'd spoken with Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson and, at length, Richard Childress. He'd researched the transitional obstacles involved in jumping from a housefly on wheels to a June bug -- and from his seat, they didn't seem so daunting.

All the cars were the same anyway, right? Especially with the Car of Tomorrow, right?

He was prepared to kick some butt.

Or so he thought.

"I don't think embarrassed is the right word," Franchitti said of his five-month Cup series stint, in an exaggerated Scottish accent as thick as the mane of black hair atop his head.

Dario Franchitti
Dario Franchitti (40) got off to a rough start in 2008, crashing with Jacques Villeneuve during a Gatorade 150 qualifying race for the Daytona 500.

"There were a lot of points last year I definitely was humbled. That was tough. I learned a lot about myself and, I think, I became stronger because of the adversity. Absolutely."

Adversity was the theme of Franchitti's NASCAR experience. Or ticked off. Or "what have I gotten myself into?" His season was miserable and ended, he said, just as he'd begun to understand the nuances of a Cup car.

Ganassi shut down the No. 40 team because of a lack of funding on July 1, 2008. Seventy people lost jobs, including Franchitti. Halfway through his first season, he'd failed to qualify twice -- including the season's low point, a baffling failure at Infineon Raceway -- and suffered a broken ankle that took him out of the seat for five weeks.

"Breaking my ankle was a massive kick in the balls," Franchitti said. "It really messed up the whole thing. In one way it was good, because it got a lot of experienced drivers in there and they didn't do any better than I did. But in another, it didn't get us back in the top 35, which would have been nice."

Five months, and it was over at the Cup level.

This was a man accustomed to running up front, dicing it up with championship-contending teams and drivers. And here he was in the back. Or, worse yet, at home watching on television.

"My timing was pretty terrible coming over to the NASCAR team, because it was the lowest point they'd been at for a long time," Franchitti said. "Talking to [Montoya] about it now, he said this year the cars and engines are just on a different level.

"That was the tough part for me -- rather than going out there and thinking about trying to qualify on the pole, I was thinking about trying to just make the races. Some of that was inexperience. Some of that was equipment."

He was frustrated, deflated. But, self-admittedly, Franchitti is stubborn as hell. He wasn't to be defined by this setback. After all, context speaks volumes. He's right. He did join CGR at its worst competitive moment, and at a time when the economy plummeted and money was scarce, no less.

For a talent like him, time was essential to success. Everything he'd ever driven was a progression from the previous machine. The Cup car was a school bus.

The lack of grip was astonishing. It was the polar opposite of all he'd ever known. The style of racing, aerodynamics -- how air could wreak havoc, simply suck you around and spin you out for no apparent reason, was all so different.

"At any of the tracks both IndyCar and Sprint Cup race on, it's like they're completely different tracks," Franchitti said. "You go out of the pits and think, 'This is not the same place I raced IndyCar at.'

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"It's a massive transition. The cars just feel so different. It's a completely different skill set required to drive them fast."

Look at Montoya. He was fast in a Cup car from the outset, but it took years for him to "learn to race" the NASCAR way. Franchitti didn't get that time.

But was it all a mistake?

"No. No. Absolutely not. I did it for the right reasons," Franchitti said. "I really wanted the challenge of something new. The timing was probably wrong with the economy and where the team was, but I didn't know that until the end of last year.

"Looking back on it with hindsight, you can see the timing was wrong. But at that point it was what I needed to do, what I wanted to do. And unfortunately -- in some ways unfortunately -- it didn't work out. In other ways, I got to go away, try something completely different, make a lot of new friends and also renew my enthusiasm for driving Indy cars."

Ganassi moved him back to open wheel, and suddenly Franchitti can drive again. He is forgotten no more.

Upon returning to the IndyCar Series, Franchitti realized the zest for that type of racing was as vigorous as ever. Driving was fun again. There was a part of him, sure, that was concerned he'd be unable to reclaim the level of excellence he left behind two years prior. But his team was the best in the paddock. While Franchitti chased NASCAR in '08, his new teammate, Scott Dixon, spanked the IndyCar field.

"I knew the cars would be good. I just didn't know if I was going to be up to speed," Franchitti said. "We managed to put that to rest, so that's a weight off my mind."

Um. Yeah. It took all of two races. Franchitti won the season's second event at Long Beach, and served notice: Hey, boys and girls, guess who's back?

"The first win of the year at Long Beach was very, very special," Franchitti said. "I'd been trying to win at Long Beach for a long time, but to win it with Chip after all we went through last year, that made it that bit sweeter, for sure. It made it extra special, because of all the frustrations that we both experienced last year."

Sometimes in life you have to lose something you love to respect its worth to you.

If Franchitti had NASCAR to do over again, it'd be easier. Hindsight has a way of making it so.

"It would be a lot easier now, because I think I understand the sport of stock car racing better," he said. "I watched all the races on TV, but that really was as far as my knowledge went. I think if I were to go back in time, I'd find out more about what I was getting into before I did it, and prepare myself better."

It's too early, he says, to contemplate a fairy-tale run to the championship. He's second to Dixon in the standings, just ahead of Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe. But it could happen.

And if it did, it would be fitting. He'd have done it the hard way.

"Nothing ever came easily for me. It's a common story with a lot of drivers -- most of us had to work our asses off to get there because there was never any silver spoon," Franchitti said.

"From day one, I busted my ass to get to where I was. It showed me my enthusiasm was still there. I still wanted to do this. I still wanted to win as badly as ever. It was never about just going out -- and still isn't about -- earning a paycheck. It's about going out and winning."

The Six …

Marty,

Your interview with Kyle Busch before the Brickyard was [bad word here] awesome. I've hated that guy for years, because he seemed like such a punk. But your interview made the fans see a different side of him. It showed a person I didn't think was inside that body. It made me -- I can't believe I'm saying this -- actually kind of like him.

He seemed to think about your questions and gave honest answers instead of being a [jerk]. That part about his team taking a bullet and the "what the hell was I thinking?" part were [awesome]! I never thought I could like the guy, but I just might now. What was said that we didn't see?

-- Randi Thomas, Stuart, Va.

A lot was said that I'd never heard before, Randi. The interview was roughly 33 minutes long, and was trimmed to just short of six minutes when it hit you in the face in HD. The most telling part of that interview for me was Busch's realization that his actions have ramifications that he never dreamed. Even something as trivial as body language matters. A lot.

Busch is going through what many elite racers experience once they reach the big time -- the concept that, man, I grew up dreaming of racing cars and winning. At what point did I have to morph into product-peddler guy?

Busch is a young Tony Stewart. Stewart went through the same learning process, including the fact that 400 people look at you for direction -- most importantly the 15 on your team -- all while corporate America expects you to conduct yourself in choir boy fashion 24/7.

Even when you stuff it in the fence while leading. Man up. Face it. Don't run away. It was refreshing to see him contemplate that and openly discuss it. It almost seemed liberating for him.

Another point made during the interview that didn't make air was the fact that he's 24 years old. He's growing up in the public eye. I was an idiot at 24. Heck, I'm not sure I could handle the scrutiny he faces now. I'm 33. But it's part of the job. It's part of being a leader. He's learning.

It has taken substantial time and effort from a lot of people. But he's learning.

Marty,

The Brickyard was boring, but at least it was better than last year. Jeff Gordon said NASCAR had to win fans back. I guess they won me back. I like that race even though the racing isn't great. Do you think fans are over last year's race?

-- Brian Hartline, Moline, Ill.

John Deere! Love Moline, Brian. Anyway, yes, Sunday's race was a solid first step to earning back fan loyalty. The notion that NASCAR doesn't belong in Indy is utterly ridiculous. It's about prestige and history, not great racing.

How many tracks offer GREAT racing on the circuit, anyway? And when did Indy ever offer GREAT racing?

I watched the inaugural Brickyard last week on Classic, and it looked very similar to Sunday's race -- one elite driver chasing down another late. Here's the thing about Sunday: The finish wasn't fabricated by some random late-debris caution.

Mark Martin drove his face off. Jimmie Johnson drove better.

If you're a race fan, that finish was fun to watch. And it was real.

Even the wasted throng I hung out with in the infield watching the final laps on the big screen awoke from its drunken slumber to take it all in. Except one guy. He passed out while propped up on his elbow. He didn't wake up. I forgot to look, but he still may have been there when I left the track at 10:45 p.m. Still wearing his sunglasses. With a beer in his hand.

Marty,

I live in Philly and go to Pocono every year. I admit it's not the best racing on Earth, but it's a reason for my friends to get together and have a boys' weekend. Why does NASCAR go to Pocono twice? It seems like overkill to me.

-- Stephen Thompson, Philadelphia

I had this very debate -- well, it wasn't much of a debate -- with my man Ed Hinton on "NASCAR Now" on Wednesday. We debated Indy, too. Weird. Makes it easy to answer, though, considering my notes are already complete. Therefore, I'll answer it the same way I answered it then. The reason we race 1,000 miles at Pocono in seven weeks' time is simple: The racing is awesome. And to quote my man George Strait, if you'll buy that, I'll throw the Golden Gate in free …

Marty,

You're slacking, man. What happened to song of the week? Bring it back.

-- Brody Benson, Charlottesville, Va.

Apologies, man. I have been absolutely slacking on the song of the week. My bad. So here's where I'll make up for lost time -- "Give it Away" by George Strait. You know what the coolest thing about that song is, other than the fact, obviously, that George Strait sang it, so it is, by default, awesome? Jamey Johnson wrote it. That dude is a stud. When he accepted the 2007 CMA Song of the Year award, he thanked his ex-wife for the inspiration! These days I need songs to say something. Everything he writes says something. If you don't have "That Lonesome Song," you're doing yourself one helluva disservice, no matter your preferred genre of music.

That's my time. Thanks for yours. I'm off to find a bird to the Pennsylvania mountains.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.