Category archive: Dario Franchitti

Parnelli JonesMichael Levitt/LAT Parnelli Jones glances at the real Borg-Warner Trophy on the day he was presented his replica.

DETROIT -- They say Parnelli Jones was prepared for any situation he faced as a driver or racing team owner.

But the 79-year-old legend wasn't prepared for what hit him Wednesday night in Detroit.

While in town at the Automotive News World Congress dinner to help present Dario Franchitti with the "Baby Borg" replica of the Borg-Warner Trophy that has been presented to Indianapolis 500 winners since 1988, Jones had the tables turned, as Franchitti presented him with the first Baby Borg created for a past Indy champion from the previous era.

2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Jones' victory in the 1963 Indianapolis 500, a classic duel that saw Parnelli in his traditional front-engine roadster pitted against Franchitti's hero Jim Clark in the revolutionary rear-engine Lotus-Ford.

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Parnelli Jones
Michael Levitt/LATParnelli Jones shows off his Baby Borg. Given to Indianapolis 500 winners beginning in 1988, he is the first champion from before that era to be presented with the replica.

Jones' diverse career included success in such events as the Baja 1000 in the desert and Trans-Am road racing, but he is most famous for his achievements at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he led five of the seven Indianapolis 500s he started. Jones dominated the 1963 and 1967 contests but saw the checkered flag only in '63; a bearing failure in the radical STP Turbine car ended his '67 race four laps short of the finish. Jones never started lower than the second row at Indy, and he was the first driver to achieve the 150 mph milestone in qualifying. He shared Rookie of the Year laurels with Bobby Marshman in 1961 and finished second to Clark in the 1965 race.

The 2,000 industry dignitaries in attendance gave Jones a standing ovation when the surprise was revealed.

"We are extremely pleased to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Parnelli's Indianapolis 500 victory by presenting him with a personal symbol of his achievement -- a Baby Borg," said Timothy Manganello, executive chairman of BorgWarner. "Dario and Parnelli will tell you that the thrill of winning the greatest race in the world is beyond description, and looking at all of the faces and names on the Borg-Warner Trophy, you realize you've joined a very elite group of champions, representing a centurylong tradition of achievement."

Franchitti was in on the Baby Borg caper from the start. The seed was planted in the fall when he sat down for an interview in Los Angeles with Jones and four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears. Somehow the point was raised that Mears was the first Indianapolis winner to receive a Baby Borg, a 14-inch replica of the priceless 5½-foot-tall, 110-pound original Borg-Warner Trophy that debuted in 1936.

"I said, 'I need one of those,' and I guess they took it upon themselves to get that rolling with BorgWarner," Jones said.

Franchitti and former INDYCAR PR man Steve Shunck learned that Baby Borgs had been privately commissioned in the past for upward of $25,000.

But realizing the historic significance of 50 years since Jones' Indy victory and a potential way to annually recognize other past champions, BorgWarner helped create a new Indy tradition.

"It was so neat to see our plan for getting him one come together," Franchitti said. "Winning the Indianapolis 500 is a special honor, and I am thrilled to be able to see Parnelli get a retro Baby Borg 50 years later to remember his win in a very special way.

"I am very honored to be receiving my third Baby Borg this year," added the four-time IndyCar Series champion. "My Baby Borgs take front and center among all my trophies, and I know Parnelli is thrilled."

The surprise honoree was suitably humbled by the presentation and the warm reception.

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Parnelli Jones and Dario Franchitti
Michael Levitt/LAT 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones, right, and 2012 winner Dario Franchitti show off their Baby Borg trophies.

"They shocked me," Jones said. "I had mentioned to those guys that when I won Indy all I got was a plaque. That's not fair! I said I'd even be willing to pay for it. I had no idea they were going to present me with my own Baby Borg.

"It seems like it all happened maybe 20 years ago or something, not 50," he added. "I have a lot of great memories from that time, but you never get over the thrill of winning the Indianapolis 500."

As an aficionado of motorsports history, Franchitti was honored to have Jones present the Baby Borg for his third Indy win. Jones holds Franchitti in high regard as well.

"He's in the same class as Rick Mears and Al Unser in my opinion," Jones said. "They have a lot of finesse, and they know how to win. He's got a lot of confidence in his own ability, but he's not a daredevil-type race driver. He uses common sense, and he knows how to get to the end. There are guys who have a lot of talent and a lot of desire, but he knows how to finish, and that's important."

Although he is approaching 80, Jones remains as busy as ever. He is currently promoting a new biography titled "As a matter of fact, I am Parnelli Jones."

"It was an honor to be here honoring Parnelli tonight," Franchitti said. "Not only is he a man who could drive anything quickly, he's possibly one of the toughest guys ever in racing. He could completely kick the ass of anyone I've ever met. He still looks like he's made out of granite.

"I'm glad I didn't have to race against him, because he would have definitely kicked my ass!"

There was plenty of hot air blowing Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, and it wasn't all atmospheric pressure.

Most of it was coming from the direction of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. After winning the first of the night's twin 275-kilometer races, Dario Franchitti, who is rarely known for making controversial public statements, was not shy about expressing his displeasure over the bad luck of drawing the 28th (out of 30) starting position for the nightcap.

Scott Dixon wasn't much happier after pulling the 18th grid spot, and you have to wonder whether the Ganassi drivers would have sung a different tune had their chief IndyCar Series championship rival Will Power not chosen the No. 3 starting spot.

Team boss Ganassi's grapes weren't any less sour as he called any driver who had the nerve to have drawn a starting spot ahead of Franchitti a "backmarker."

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Will Power
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesWill Power was elated after drawing the third starting position for Race No. 2 of the Firestone Twins 275s at Texas Motor Speedway.

After Power ran strongly on the way to third place in Race 1, the second sprint was clearly his race to lose. And he didn't, claiming a relatively easy victory over Dixon -- who charged from 18th to second after he got done complaining about his draw.

Franchitti drove a masterful race, too, passing 21 "backmarkers" on the way to seventh place and minimizing the damage to his championship hopes. When the Texas twins were over and done with, Dario lost only five points to Power in the championship chase, probably far fewer than the Ganassi team's mismanagement of the final 40 laps of the Indianapolis 500 cost him.

But his image took a hit by what many fans perceived as excessive moaning. The blind draw for the second race may not have created a level playing field, but the rules were the same for everyone. And the estimated 50,000 fans present at TMS seemed to enjoy the halftime spectacle every bit as much as they did the 550 kilometers of clean, fast Indy car action.

On Monday, while at a joint appearance in Boston that named MoveThatBlock.com as the title sponsor for the upcoming IndyCar Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Franchitti and IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had a chance to discuss the controversial Texas format. Bernard indicated that changes are already being considered.

"I took a lot of heat for my comments, but people don't understand, in my opinion, the big picture," Franchitti said. "Had they inverted [the Race 1 finishing order] I would have started worse, but it would have been fair for everyone. I would have started last, Scott would have started second-last and Will [Power] would have started 28th. It would have been some performance parameter, and that's all I was asking for."

"We have to evaluate everything we do this year and make sure that we are providing the best competition, entertainment and value to give that great fan experience," Bernard responded. "It was a little bit gimmicky, and I take the blame for it. I think it's important to make sure we sustain credibility, and I'm not convinced that what we did Saturday night does that. A draw takes away from that, especially if somebody loses the championship by five points to a draw."

It's fair to say that the Texas twin races created every bit as much controversy as TMS president Eddie Gossage could have hoped for. With that in mind, here's who emerged as winners and losers after the smoke cleared ...

• Winner -- Will Power. Not only did the Team Penske driver claim his first oval track victory and increase his championship lead to 21 points over Franchitti, he gained positive PR points for basically agreeing that the Ganassi drivers got screwed by the gimmick format. He also was extremely lucky to get away with bumping his left front wing endplate on Takuma Sato's rear tire without damage to either car.

• Winner/sore loser -- Dario Franchitti. The Scotsman dominated Race 1 for an easy victory but could uncharacteristically barely contain his anger after being left with the 28th starting spot in the reverse order blind draw for Race 2. He was right to say that simply inverting the field for Race 2 would have been much more fair -- as well as potentially more exciting for the fans. But he probably could have expressed his feelings more diplomatically.

• Winner -- Scott Dixon. Dixon drove beautifully all night and finished second in both races. He also came up with perhaps the best solution to the Race 2 starting order quandary: award bonus points for the number of cars passed. Maybe next year?

• Winners -- Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves. Power's Team Penske colleagues both kept their cool and notched solid finishes at Texas -- sixth and third for Briscoe, 10th and fourth for Castroneves. Helio in particular needed a decent result to stabilize his season and put himself back in the frame of mind needed to again challenge for race wins after a horrible start to his 2011 campaign.

• Winner -- Marco Andretti. By finishing sixth in the second race, Andretti matched Franchitti as the biggest position gainer of the night with 21 cars passed. He was Andretti Autosport's top finisher in both races, albeit a lowly 13th place in Race 1.

• Winner -- KV Racing Technology. Before the races, almost no one would have guessed that KVRT would pack up after the Texas twin bill with three intact race cars. But not only did the cars emerge unscathed, Takuma Sato matched a career best with a fifth-place finish in Race 1 and improved 13 places to 12th in Race 2, making him seventh on aggregate for the night. Crash-prone EJ Viso notched a pair of top-10s, and team leader Tony Kanaan claimed finishes of 11th and fifth, helping him maintain fifth place in the IndyCar Series standings.

• Loser -- Oriol Servia. Servia dropped from third to fourth in the points chase after a best finish of 15th place on Saturday night. Servia and Newman/Haas Racing weren't terribly confident about their Texas setup, and the Spaniard was called out by Franchitti for dangerous driving during the first race.

• Loser -- Danica Patrick. On a track where she normally runs well, Danica was not remotely competitive on Saturday night, and eighth place in the second race was a result that flattered to deceive. She also got into a war of words with rookie Jay Howard. Wonder how she'll like TMS in a stock car next year?

• Loser -- Justin Wilson. One of the best road racers in the IndyCar Series had a bad night on the Texas oval, as he was lapped in both races on the way to 17th and 21st places.

• Loser -- Graham Rahal. He suffered the only mechanical gremlin of the night when his Service Central/Ganassi entry had fuel feed problems. Given what happened in qualifying and the race at Indianapolis, did the Ganassi guys simply fail to put enough fuel in the car?

• Losers -- Wade Cunningham and Charlie Kimball. The rookies caused the only full-course caution of the night with their crash late in the first race.

• Winners -- IndyCar Series fans. Whether they were at the track or home watching on TV, they got a heck of a show. A pair of them, in fact.

INDIANAPOLIS -- For the 33 drivers in the Indianapolis 500 field, Carb Day 2011 lacked drama.

And that's just the way they like it.

In ideal cool, cloudy conditions, the field completed an incident-free hour of practice. Now everyone gets to recalibrate for race day, when temperatures are expected to approach 90 degrees for the second year in a row.

Last year, a hot race played into the hands of Target Ganassi Racing -- specifically Dario Franchitti, who dominated the 500 on the way to victory.

The Target team certainly looked good this year on Carb Day, as Scott Dixon and Franchitti ran first and third.

"I love Carb Day," Franchitti said. "You can have the best car all month, then show up on Carb Day and the thing is just terrible. I've had one smooth Carb Day in however many years I've done this race, and that was last year, when I parked the thing and went to my bus happy.

"We were 1-2 on Carb Day and the race was hot too, and it just put our cars in the sweet spot," he added. "Had it been the same temperature as before, we might not have had the same advantage or any advantage at all. We may have had to change the setup completely. That's one of the tough things about Indy -- you practice, practice, practice at the same temperature, and if it changes for the race you have to start over again. That's where the experience comes in, from the team or from the driver."

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Alex Tagliani
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAlex Tagliani starts from the pole on Sunday, and he was second in Friday's Carb Day practice.

Dixon has been a tick quicker than Franchitti all week and that trend continued on Carb Day. The 2008 Indy winner's quick lap of 225.474 mph was a full 0.7 mph faster than pole qualifier Alex Tagliani and Franchitti.

"It felt good, but we'll see what the weather brings," Dixon said. "It's always more difficult in the race. If you're in traffic it's a lot more difficult to stay close to the car, because you get less grip from the tires and less grip from the wings."

AJ Foyt Racing enjoyed a productive Carb Day, placing Vitor Meira fourth and controversial addition Ryan Hunter-Reay seventh. Meanwhile Team Penske's fastest representative was three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves in ninth. Will Power was 12th fastest and Ryan Briscoe was 15th, all in the 223 mph bracket.

Dixon tabbed Tagliani as the dark horse to watch on Sunday.

"Obviously Tag has done a hell of a job this month and it's good to see their team [Sam Schmidt Motorsports] working so well," Dixon said. "You never know until you get to the race, but he's a good friend and I'm glad to see what he's achieved. He's put together a team that can mix it up with the big boys."

The unquestioned feel-good story of the month, Tagliani vowed to create a happy ending.

"It's been an amazing week," Tagliani said. "Fortunately we rolled the car out of the trailer fast and every day we were strong. It's a pleasure to drive a very competitive car.

"Seems to me it's just unreal. It's too good to be true, but I'd like to think we deserve it. Maybe we did everything better than everything else and hopefully it will continue."

The history of the Indianapolis 500 includes countless episodes of David triumphing over Goliath. Can Tagliani add to that legacy on the 100th anniversary of the great race?

Multifaceted racing team owner Chip Ganassi and his Izod IndyCar Series driver Dario Franchitti were the stars of the 40th annual All-America Team Banquet staged by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AARWBA).

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Dario Franchitti, Chip Ganassi
AP Photo/Terry RennaDario Franchitti, left, and team owner Chip Ganassi wrapped up the 2009 IndyCar Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

Hosted by John and Ashley Force at John Force Racing's spectacular new facility in Brownsburg, Ind., on Jan. 16, the AARWBA banquet brought together several hundred dignitaries from all forms of auto racing. Franchitti won the Jerry Titus Memorial Award, presented by AARWBA to the year's top driver, for the second time in his career.

Yet it was team boss Ganassi who stole the show with a poignant speech about his 47-year love affair with auto racing. Ganassi made a passionate plea for the leaders of the sport to understand that racing's survival in the future depends upon whether it can stay relevant in dramatically changing times for the auto industry. To do so, he said, racing must make a priority of focusing on technical innovation by embracing new, cutting-edge technology -- even if that means upsetting some traditional elements of the sport.

In his speech, Ganassi confirmed that engineer Ben Bowlby (a member of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar Series team) has spearheaded research and development of the so-called Delta Wing car that has been proposed as an alternate blueprint for the Indy car of the future. But he was quick to refute the notion that the Ganassi organization claims ownership of the concept, and he also stated that even if the basic blueprint for the radical new car is approved, traditional chassis suppliers including Dallara could still be involved in a manufacturing and distribution capacity.

"Will it work? Will it go fast?" queried Ganassi. "I'm sorry to say I'm not going to announce it here tonight, but next month it's going to debut at a major auto show" -- likely the Chicago Auto Show, scheduled for Feb. 12-21 -- "and I'm confident it's going to achieve those trends and will have the same performance as the current car.

"It's a big step forward in meeting this modern-day challenge of achieving the same performance with far greater efficiency. And if we're going to survive in this industry, that's what we need to have -- greater efficiency with the same performance and the same speed. And that same feeling when you're sitting and watching in Turn 1 at Indianapolis."

Ganassi insisted that the status quo is no longer sufficient for racing to keep fans, sponsors and manufacturers involved and invested in the sport -- whether in NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars or even Formula One.

"We in the racing industry need to be bold in meeting and demonstrating tomorrow's technology and innovations, showcasing what can be achieved as we embark on a new era of efficiency," he said. "In order to keep the sport of auto racing healthy, it's going to take our collective efforts."

Franchitti earned the Ganassi team's second consecutive IndyCar Series championship in 2009 and third overall. TCGR also claimed four consecutive CART-sanctioned Indy car titles from 1996 to 1999 with drivers Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Dario won his first Titus Award in 2007, when he won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship while driving for the team now known as Andretti Autosport.

"I love being a part of the Target team, being around like-minded people," said the Scotsman. "I'm going to keep doing it as long as I enjoy it and as long as I'm competitive. I think the two are quite linked, actually."

As a keen enthusiast for all forms of motor racing, Franchitti took delight in touring Force's 300,000-square-foot facility, which incorporates the Eric Medlen Project -- a research foundation sponsored by Ford Racing dedicated to improving safety in drag racing and other forms of motorsports. Medlen was killed testing a JFR Funny Car in March 2007 at Gainesville Raceway.

"I got to meet John Force -- how cool is that?" exclaimed Franchitti. "He's like Jackie Stewart in cowboy boots!

"That's the good news," he added. "The bad news for Chip is that [Force] offered to give me a go in one of his cars!"

By luck or design, the Indy Racing League's scoring system has created remarkably close championship battles, and for the fourth year in a row, the IndyCar Series title was not settled until the final lap of the season. Dario Franchitti edged his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, with Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe right in the mix as well.

At about this time a year ago, I wrote a column in which I used point-scoring systems from several other forms of motorsport to determine whether the results of the IndyCar Series championship hypothetically would have changed. I calculated that the IndyCar Series would have had a different champion in eight of the 15 scenarios I created, with the biggest shakeup coming to the 2006 standings, where Sam Hornish Jr. tied Dan Wheldon on points but won on a tiebreaker using the IRL points distribution.

Four drivers went into the final championship round that year with a shot at the title, and had either the CART or current Formula 1 scoring system been in use, Helio Castroneves would have won the title rather than finishing third. Castroneves would have won another crown in 2008 if either CART or Champ Car World Series points had been awarded.

Castroneves was out of championship contention this year, but once again, an alternate scoring system would have crowned a different champion. Let's crunch the numbers …

Formula One

The classic F1 points distribution rewarded excellence, and until 2002, only the top 6 finishers in a Grand Prix were awarded points. Expanding the points to the top 8 did little to slow down the Michael Schumacher express, but it did create more interesting F1 title races about half the time since then.

Prior to establishing himself as an IndyCar Series star, Briscoe had F1 aspirations, and the Australian would today find himself as the 2009 IndyCar champion if points were awarded F1 style. Despite scoring fewer race wins than either of the Target/Ganassi drivers, Briscoe's eight second-place finishes would have benefited him handsomely this year and he would have emerged as champion had the classic or current F1 system been in use. That's despite the fact that he suffered four finishes outside the top 12, compared to three for Dixon and just two for Franchitti.

It was feast or famine for Briscoe, who never finished lower than fourth except in his four bad events. He would have scored 81 points using the old F1 system, compared to 76 for Franchitti and 73 for Dixon. Using the current F1 points, Briscoe would have racked up 104 markers, with Franchitti second on 101 and Dixon third with 96.

CART

CART paid out points to the top 12 finishers, and also awarded single bonus points for pole position and leading the most laps.

Franchitti would have triumphed as this year's IndyCar Series champion using the CART system, with 226 points, but Briscoe would have beaten Dixon into second place with 221 points to the New Zealander's tally of 215.

With four poles and five races in which he led the most laps, Briscoe was the bonus point leader (Dixon had one pole and led the most laps six times, while Franchitti started the most races from the pole with five and topped the laps led chart only three times), but it wasn't enough for him to overcome the extra points Franchitti gained by winning five races to Briscoe's three.

Champ Car

Champ Car spread the points down to 20th place, and was also more generous with the bonus points, awarding them for pole position, laps led, most positions gained and fastest race lap.

Briscoe yet again dominated the bonus points, racking up 22 to Dixon's 18 and Franchitti's 17, but once more it was not enough to deliver him a championship. In fact, using the Champ Car system, he remained third in the final reckoning, scoring 396 points compared to 399 for Dixon and 409 for series champion Franchitti.

NASCAR

Dixon matched Briscoe with 90 NASCAR-style bonus points, which are dispensed in five-point increments for any driver who leads a lap and to the driver who leads the most laps in a race. Franchitti racked up 70 NASCAR bonus points but still came out on top of the mythical championship standings, with 2,818 points, plus-5 on Dixon and plus-36 on Briscoe.

Ultimately, the fact that Briscoe scored more poor finishes than the Target Ganassi drivers proved to be his undoing. Dixon and Franchitti salvaged bad days by finishing anywhere from third to seventh, and Franchitti was particularly effective in terms of damage control.

In fact, had Dario not suffered a brake failure leading to a crash at Kansas Speedway (where he probably would have finished second to Dixon) and an off-course excursion at Watkins Glen while avoiding another driver's accident, he would have put together an almost perfect season and won the championship by a landslide.

No matter what scoring system was in use.

The top spot in ESPN.com's IndyCar Series Power Rankings got passed around as often as the lead of the series championship this year.

We started the practice in the lead-up to the Indianapolis 500, and since then, Scott Dixon has topped the charts five times, including the final ranking for the 2009 season. Dario Franchitti was No. 1 on four occasions, Ryan Briscoe twice, and Helio Castroneves once.

After midseason, Castroneves was firmly planted at No. 4, while Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti swapped the first three places almost on a weekly basis.

In the end, even though he didn't win the 2009 championship, I placed Dixon at No. 1, mainly on the basis that I believe the rankings represent a driver's potential going into the next race. In other words, if whatever race that kicks off the 2010 IndyCar Series season were next week (it could be St. Petersburg, because things have gone awfully quiet on the Brazil front), I'd put my money on Dixon to win it.

I agonized about ranking series champion Franchitti second and wrote, "I'll probably hear from Dario after ranking him No. 2, yet he probably won't argue that Dixon deserves to be No. 1."

Indeed I did hear from the Scotsman, who made a credible case for why he should be ranked No. 1 over his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate. There was no animosity or ego involved, just the well-crafted thoughts of a passionate racer who takes every part of his craft seriously -- right down to media relations.

To wit, Franchitti felt he deserved to be ranked No. 1 for several reasons:

• He led the IndyCar Series in pole positions with five, plus the one taken away at Kansas Speedway because of a minor infringement. That's proof that over one lap, at least, he was the fastest driver in Indy car racing, and the poles came on all types of tracks -- short ovals, speedways, road courses and street courses. His five wins were also thoroughly diverse, from his strategy-driven victory in the finale to his dominant flag-to-flag run on the Infineon Raceway road course.

• His fuel-strategy win at Homestead was countered by losing the Richmond race to Dixon on fuel mileage.

• His only real mistake was getting crossed up while avoiding an incident between Ed Carpenter and Mario Moraes at Watkins Glen.

"For the first year at a team and first year back, I'd say it was pretty good," he said. "I'm not normally one to sound my own trumpet, but … anyway, the case for the defense rests."

To restate: Franchitti was the better qualifier, with five-plus poles to Dixon's two; matched Dixon on race wins with five; had one more top-10 finish than his teammate (15 versus 14 in a 17-race season); and made fewer mistakes -- Dario's only DNF was a crash at Kansas caused by a brake problem.

Is he right? I'm not sure. I probably would have been happiest listing the Ganassi teammates as co-No. 1s, but that would have been a cop-out.

You certainly can't diminish what Franchitti achieved this year -- my own words were: "Returned to Indy cars motivated and refreshed after his NASCAR sabbatical, matched Ganassi teammate Dixon with five wins and thoroughly deserved to emerge as series champion."

But I'm going to stand by my choice of Dixon as the No. 1 driver in the IndyCar Series Power Rankings. And I hope Franchitti and his fans don't take being listed as an oh-so-close No. 2 as an insult. If you happen to read this rebuttal, Dario, we will have to continue this argument over a couple of beers. And maybe include Dixie to hear what he has to say about the matter.

Besides, had there been just one timely caution in that Homestead race, Briscoe could have emerged as IndyCar Series champion, and there would have been a different name at the top of the Power Rankings.

Dario Franchitti returned to the IndyCar Series in 2009 after a brief foray into NASCAR, and it looks like he never missed a beat.

Franchitti won four races and won the 2007 IndyCar championship while driving for Andretti Green Racing, and after switching to Target Chip Ganassi Racing this year he has matched that victory tally to date in 2009. He's five points behind teammate Scott Dixon heading into the season-ending Firestone Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe just three points behind Franchitti.

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Dario Franchitti
AP Photo/AJ MastDario Franchitti's biggest fan? It's wife Ashley Judd, of course.

The 2007 championship was a two-man battle between Dixon and Franchitti, resolved in Dario's favor when Dixon ran out of fuel on the final lap at Chicagoland Speedway while leading. Now they are racing for the same team, but Dario insists that the dynamic between the championship protagonists hasn't changed.

"It's different because I know Scott better and we're in the same equipment," Franchitti said. "But when you get out on the track it's the same, really. We've always raced each other pretty clean and with the same level of respect. Obviously now being teammates, that increases, but once we get out there, whoever does the best job at Homestead is going to win it.

"It's kind of cool, isn't it? We're all going to go out there and it comes down to this."

Still, Franchitti believes that no matter what happens Saturday, the championship will not have been determined by one race or one moment -- even though that's what the focus was after the dramatic last-lap conclusion to the 2007 season.

"A lot of factors throughout the year have gotten us to this point," he noted. "We've lost points at some races through mistakes or bad luck, and we've also gained some through making the right choices and having some good luck.

"A championship doesn't all come down to one race or one point," he continued. "The last lap at Chicago is the moment that everybody remembers, but it was a long season and a lot of things got us there. Each day you have to make the most of the car you have, and that day our car wasn't quick enough to win it. So I had to use the only weapon I had, which was fuel mileage. There were many points that year where we had the quickest car and got screwed."

The key difference to this year's championship decider is that the venue has changed from Chicagoland to Homestead. Franchitti believes that could change the complexion of the action.

"Homestead is a much tougher track to drive," he noted. "Chicago is a much more banked track and the corners are so open; it's more about speed than handling. Homestead is really a handling track, and we've noticed that this year especially."

All three of the championship contenders tested within the last week at Homestead.

"It was just the three of us, so it was kind of weird," laughed Franchitti.

Win or lose on Saturday, Dario plans to walk away with his head high, comfortable in the knowledge that 2009 was one of the best years of his 14-year career in American open-wheel racing. Aside from his 2007 IndyCar Series title, he tied Juan Pablo Montoya on points for the 1999 CART Champ Car World Series crown, but lost out to the Colombian on a tiebreaker.

"It's got to be pretty close to my best," Franchitti said. "Certainly it's up there with '07; 1999 and '98 were good years too. It's always clouded, though. Some years you're in really good stuff; in '07 the car was very good and obviously this year the car was very good. In 2000, I think I drove a good season but the car wasn't really that good.

"I think the one difference this year is we let Indy slip away with the pit stop and we let a couple of others slip away that we probably could have won. So to be in this situation, it's been a pretty strong year."

Dario Franchitti might not win the IndyCar Series championship Oct. 10 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But in his open-wheel comeback season, he cemented his status as a champion for American motorsports.

To most, Franchitti's brief foray into NASCAR in 2008 was not a success. The obvious lows included an ankle-breaking accident in a Talladega Nationwide Series race and an embarrassing Sprint Cup DNQ at the Infineon Raceway road course.

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Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon
AP Photo/Shuji KajiyamaDario Franchitti, left, and teammate Scott Dixon have shown an extreme thirst for winning in 2009.

It's easy to miss the highlights: a Nationwide pole at Watkins Glen, and many laps led in the same series at Bristol. In fact, Franchitti showed more promise in his handful of stock car appearances than any of the recent open-wheel transplants currently racing in NASCAR.

Although things didn't work out the way he wanted in NASCAR, Franchitti's perceived failure in stock cars only strengthened his resolve and desire to drive Indy cars. He admitted those were lacking in the latter stages of his 10-year tenure with Andretti Green Racing, even during his IndyCar championship and Indy 500-winning season of 2007.

In a fresh environment at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, alongside a teammate he likes and respects in Scott Dixon, Franchitti adjusted back to open-wheelers as if he had never been away. His 2009 season has been every bit as competitive as his 2007 championship campaign, with four race wins and only five points separating him from Dixon's championship lead.

"Yeah, I'm having a blast," he said, smiling, after finishing second in the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi. "I'm really enjoying it again. I thought at one point I would have retired maybe by the time I was 35. But I'm still enjoying it. I still love it. The fact I can still be competitive, I'm still out there winning races and challenging for championships, it's just for fun. It's just because I enjoy it.

"For me, a big part of enjoyment has been being in the position to win races. I've got to thank Chip and those guys for inviting me back."

He won't want to hear it, but at age 36, Franchitti is a standard-bearer -- if not an elder statesman -- of the IndyCar Series. Despite his success on the track -- and the fact that he is married to one of the world's most-admired women, Ashley Judd -- Franchitti remains as unpretentious as he was the day he arrived in America to race in the CART series in 1997.

He knows there is a point coming when the wins aren't going to come as frequently. There's plenty of statistical evidence to show that Indy car drivers start to lose a fraction of their pace in their late 30s, the latest example being Franchitti's old pal Paul Tracy.

But Franchitti insists he's not there yet, which has allowed him to race in lockstep this season with Dixon, who at age 29 is already a two-time IndyCar Series champion with the potential to go down as one of the sport's all-time greats.

"It depends day to day, but I feel similar to what I did when I was 30, but maybe smarter," Franchitti said. "I think there's definitely a crossover. You improve as a driver and you improve your race craft and your sort of race smarts. You become a bit smarter. At the same time, your reactions start going a lot. I don't think I've reached that crossover point yet, and hopefully it doesn't come for a while."

With 50-year-old Mark Martin leading the Sprint Cup Series in wins and points, there's obviously time for Franchitti to eventually make the transition into stock cars if he still wants to. Sports cars are another option; he's a favorite at Honda and is co-driving Patron Highcroft Racing's Acura prototype in this weekend's Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

For the time being, he is happy to watch Juan Pablo Montoya -- his former rival from the CART series -- fly the Ganassi flag in the Chase for the Cup.

Or maybe a little envious.

"I wish they'd been that good last year!" he said. "It's brilliant for the whole team. Chip puts a lot into his racing and gives every team everything it needs to do their job. I mean, to see the improvement there, to see JPM is not only in the Chase but stuck it on the pole down there in Loudon is really great to see.

"Hopefully we can keep our end of the bargain."

JOLIET, Ill. -- Ryan Briscoe said last week that he would need to win more races this year if he was to secure his first IndyCar Series championship.

He was good to his word.

The 27-year-old Australian obviously is peaking at the right time, because he won the Peak Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday night to open up the largest championship lead any driver has enjoyed during the 2009 campaign.

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Ryan Briscoe
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhRyan Briscoe will take a 25-point lead into the IndyCar Series' penultimate event Sept. 18 in Motegi, Japan.

With two races remaining, Briscoe is 25 points ahead of Dario Franchitti and 33 points up on Scott Dixon. The Ganassi drivers finished second and fourth at Chicagoland, with Dixon the runner-up to Briscoe by 0.0077 of a second in the fourth-closest finish in IndyCar Series history.

"That's the best I've ever seen you run!" victorious team owner Roger Penske exclaimed to his driver in Victory Circle.

Penske had just watched Briscoe drive back through the field after dropping to 15th place following a slow midrace pit stop. Saving his final power boost until the final lap, the Penske car was able to stay ahead of the Ganassi-prepared Dallara by 28½ inches on the run to the line.

Three of the four closest finishes in IndyCar Series history have occurred at the 1.5-mile oval near Joliet.

"I didn't think I was going to have enough for him, but once I got beside him, it slowed both of our cars down," Briscoe said. "The side draft evened things out and allowed me to beat him across the line. I didn't even know that we had won."

Dixon knew, and he knew it would happen long before the nine-lap green-flag run that ended the 200-lap contest.

"We came out about 30 car lengths ahead from the last pit stop, but we just didn't have the speed," Dixon lamented. "I could tell. I knew if we were going to come down to a shootout, we were going to lose. The last eight laps, I pushed [the power-to-pass boost] every lap. But I didn't have quite enough at the end. Credit to Ryan and Team Penske for obviously doing a great job.

"We need to push hard the last couple of races and try to lead as many laps as possible and go for wins," he added. "But I think we need to redefine what we are doing on our 1.5-mile aero program, whether it's drag or [how the] body fits or whatever. We clearly didn't have the speed the Penske cars did in qualifying or the race."

Dropping to near the back of the pack didn't appear to harm Briscoe, although he was worried because it forced him to burn most of his power-to-pass boost.

After being stuck at midfield for the better part of 50 laps, he suddenly emerged in third place, hunting down the Ganassi cars.

Briscoe had been mired back there because he'd missed his marks during his second pit stop and the fueler had difficulty fitting the hose to the car.

"It [was] not as smooth as I would have liked," Briscoe said. "The car was fast and consistent, but when I got stuck in the pack, it was like a wall in front of me with cars going everywhere. It was really hectic, and after 40 laps when my spotter said, 'Clear all 'round!' it was the best thing I'd heard in a long time."

Briscoe has been the only driver to maintain the IndyCar Series championship lead for two races in a row this year, and he's done it twice now. He'll have nearly three weeks until the next race is staged in Motegi, Japan, to think about it.

"It's no different, really," he said. "We've seen how quickly that can turn around, and we've got to stay focused and try to beat these guys. I sort of got myself into a little bit of trouble tonight, and we need to avoid those instances."

Briscoe's teammate Helio Castroneves crashed out at Chicagoland to officially eliminate himself from championship contention. But one Penske entry was stout enough to take on and beat two cars from the Ganassi stable.

"Ryan did a good job again tonight," Franchitti said. "We're going to have to make something happen these next two races. Scott and I are racing each other and competing for points; Ryan's got the luxury of Helio being out of it, so he can help him a little bit. If we end up having to back one horse for the championship, Chip will make that decision."

Of course, the way Briscoe is running, Ganassi may not have to make that choice. Briscoe has scored two of his three 2009 race wins in the past four weeks.

The Aussie has reached the point where he runs as strong on ovals as he does on road courses, and that's what it takes to win the IndyCar Series title. He'll have to travel to Japan and back to Florida to clinch it, but Briscoe has one hand on the championship cup.

In each of the past three years, the IndyCar Series championship was decided at Chicagoland Speedway. The 1.5-mile oval, an hour west of The Loop in Joliet, does not host the IndyCar finale this year (that honor, for the first time, goes to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 10), but Saturday night's PEAK Indy 300 could have major implications for the three title protagonists.

It's Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe up against Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, separated by just 20 points with three races remaining. Franchitti and Dixon have four wins apiece compared to Briscoe's two, but seven second-place finishes have the Australian atop the points standings.

Briscoe is astute enough to know that second-place finishes in the remaining races might not be enough to hold off one of the Ganassi duo.

"Looking at how this championship has gone so far, no one can hang on to the lead," Briscoe said. "I think we're seeing that wins reward greatly, and I think whoever's going to win this championship needs to go out and win races. Obviously, you need to finish and collect points. But getting those 50 points is always really important."

Dixon suffered a 40-point swing compared to Franchitti this past weekend at Infineon Raceway, and the driver of Ganassi's No. 9 car can't afford another bad weekend if he wants to repeat as series champion.

The New Zealander finished second the past two years at Chicagoland, losing the championship to Franchitti in 2007 but prevailing over race winner Helio Castroneves in 2008.

Castroneves, who has dropped from championship contention with an inconsistent season, is somewhat the X-factor in the remaining races. If he runs up front, he can help steal points from the Ganassi drivers.

Franchitti, who is just three points behind Briscoe in this year's title chase, won his last Chicagoland start while driving for Andretti Green Racing in 2007. He passed Dixon on the last lap to win the race and the championship when the Target car ran out of fuel.

The Ganassi team was surprisingly off form at the most recent IndyCar race on a 1.5-mile speedway. That event, at Kentucky Speedway on July 31, was the first using the IRL's revised aerodynamic rules.

Ganassi did not use the newly optional sidepod extensions, and when the recently resurfaced track didn't grip up as much as expected in the cool night conditions, Dixon and Franchitti found they were lacking downforce.

"In retrospect, I guess you could say we perhaps got it wrong at Kentucky," Ganassi aerodynamicist Andy Brown said. "In the past, we've run less drag than everybody else, and it's been an approach that worked well for us where we walked away from the front. The way the championship is now, you have to go for wins. As close as the top of the points table has been, it's difficult to play the percentage game. You really have to go for wins right now. We went for it and didn't quite pull it off that time."

The Chicagoland race is expected to be reminiscent of closely packed Indy car races from the past. The availability of additional aero options turned the Kentucky race into a barn burner, decided in a photo finish in Briscoe's favor over Vision Racing's Ed Carpenter.

Briscoe believes the racing could be even better this weekend.

"Lots of two- and three-wide," he said. "You can find yourself between first and 10th in a heartbeat. It's going to be tough racing. Especially with the aero changes we saw come onboard in Kentucky, it's going to allow everybody to be very aggressive and run nose-to-tail very closely. It was already like that last year, so even more so this year, I'm predicting."

This will be the IndyCar Series' final event on U.S. soil prior to the season finale in Florida in October. The Indy Japan 300 will run at Twin Ring Motegi on Sept. 19.

No matter how close the championship battle is coming out of Chicagoland, it will be a challenge for the series to maintain a place in the minds of American sports fans, especially with football season starting.

An amazing finish Saturday night -- especially if media magnet Danica Patrick is involved -- certainly would help.