Dario Franchitti's career still on the rise
LAS VEGAS -- It's been another typical INDYCAR season in the Indian summer of Dario Franchitti's racing career.
The 38-year-old Scotsman seems to get better with age, and he's certainly hit a hot streak at a time when many drivers his age see their race-winning prospects grow cold.
Franchitti has won the last three Izod IndyCar Series championships he has competed in (2007 and 2009-10), and he leads Will Power by 18 points heading into the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC).
If Franchitti succeeds in winning his fourth Indy car national championship, only A.J Foyt with seven titles would rank ahead of him. Mario Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais also have won four championships.
Dario has claimed four race wins in 2011, bringing his total to 30 and putting him ninth on the all-time list. Although Power has won six races this year, Franchitti has led 884 laps to Power's 518 and he can set a league-sanctioned record if he leads 16 laps on Sunday.
Franchitti's most recent victory took him past three-time Indy car champion (and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner) Rick Mears on the pantheon of race winners.
"It's tough to win, period, so to win multiple championships is always difficult, and he's done a great job," Mears said. "He's always been a smart runner who keeps out of trouble, and that's what it takes to win championships. There are always guys who can run fast and hard, and you have to try to outthink them and run smarter than them and you have to have lady luck on your side also."
Power often has griped about what he perceives as Franchitti's good luck, and even Dario's teammate Scott Dixon buys into the notion that the Scotsman enjoys more than his share of good fortune.
"It's like he has little angel wings or something because even on a bad day they seem to pull it through," Dixon said with a chuckle. "But it just shows he's obviously winning races and he's very consistent.
That's what it's all about. To win championships, you've got to have consistency and you have to dominate some races, and he's done that. He's had a bit of bad luck just like all of us throughout this year."
Franchitti's only real misfortune came at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he inexplicably tangled with Takuma Sato on a restart and crashed after dominating the first half of the race. By contrast, Power had two races compromised by pit-lane incidents, and he suffered a heavy crash at Iowa Speedway.
Franchitti got away with sliding through a tire barrier during the wet race in Brazil, and some observers believe he should have gotten a penalty after tapping Ryan Briscoe into a spin in Japan.
There also was the controversial contact with Power at Toronto that sent the Penske driver spinning and fuming while Franchitti went on to win. That sparked a Twitter war between the two combatants.
But there's been nothing lucky about Franchitti's success since he won his first IndyCar Series title in 2007. He returned to Indy car racing in 2009 after an unsuccessful attempt to break into NASCAR as a hungrier, more savvy open-wheel driver.
"I've done a lot of these races, and I've probably still lost more races from bad luck than I've won from good luck," Franchitti said. "These things have a habit of balancing out over the years. So I'll take the good luck as long as it keeps coming."
It's tough to win, period, so to win multiple championships is always difficult, and he's done a great job. He's always been a smart runner who keeps out of trouble, and that's what it takes to win championships.” -- Rick Mears on Dario Franchitti
Franchitti's luck seemed to have turned for the worse in the latter part of the season as a 62-point championship lead turned into an 11-point deficit.
But Power truly did suffer some bad luck at Kentucky Speedway when Dreyer & Reinbold Racing sent Ana Beatriz out of her pit and straight into the sidepod of Power's Verizon Team Penske entry.
Although he was able to continue with a damaged car, the Australian's pace was slowed by 4 mph and his 19th-place finish combined with Franchitti's run to second elevated Dario into an 18-point advantage heading into Las Vegas.
Franchitti came from behind in points to claim his 2007 and 2009 titles, winning the last race of the season on each occasion.
"It just shows how quickly things change," Franchitti said. "You never give up, because until it's mathematically impossible, you haven't lost it or you haven't won it.
"Leading the points is certainly nicer than the position we were in last week, no doubt about it," he added. "But it can change in a second. So we'll just go out with an open mind and see what comes of it."
With his impressive overall record that includes race wins in CART and the IndyCar Series since 1998, Franchitti has been forced to deflect conversation about his legacy in the sport while his talent is still at its peak.
"I'm not thinking about what's happened before," he said. "I think if you get too distracted thinking, 'Oh man, three championships,' or whatever, you're losing focus. I suppose that's something to think about when I retire, really, and not yet.
"So I'm just thinking about Vegas now, what I have to do there to get number four. When eventually I retire, I'll think about things in that wider picture."
Team owner Roger Penske, who fields Power's entry, paid tribute to Franchitti and the rival Chip Ganassi Racing organization.
"Franchitti is such a calculating and good race driver, and he knows when to go," Penske said. "He brings consistency to the table, and his experience on the ovals, and certainly on the road courses, just shows he's a well-balanced driver.
"With Scott Dixon right there also, it's a pretty tough team."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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