Visit to Detroit clinched return for Dario

September, 6, 2008
09/06/08
7:55
PM ET

JOLIET, Ill. -- Last Saturday at Detroit, I talked with Dario Franchitti for almost an hour over lunch at the Honda hospitality coach. The conversation was very informal; Dario and I have known each other since 1997, when he drove for Hogan Racing during his rookie season in the PPG/CART Indy Car World Series. So we basically just caught each other up on what had been going on in our lives over the past year, since he left Indy-style racing for what turned out to be a short-lived NASCAR experiment.

Given that Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team had a vacancy in the No. 41 car for 2009 and that Franchitti was still under contract to "The Chipster," it wasn't a stretch to conclude that Dario would end up in the 41 next year. Like almost everyone else, I was firmly convinced that his Indy car racing days were behind him, with the possible exception of running at the Indianapolis 500.

It was, therefore, quite a shock to receive the news release Tuesday afternoon announcing that Franchitti will return to open-wheelers full-time next year in Ganassi's No.10 IndyCar Series team. I immediately dialed him up, and not surprisingly, he returned the call within a few minutes.

"I think Chip was more excited about getting one over on you guys [in the media] than he was about actually doing the deal," Franchitti said with a chuckle. "I told TK [Tony Kanaan] the night before they announced it, but I couldn't talk to anyone else. They would have read me the riot act."

Kanaan, who is Franchitti's best friend on the circuit, said he felt "honored to know the news before everyone else" when Dario leaked word of his return.

"I kind of had a feeling at Detroit and he confirmed it," Kanaan added. "I think he was trying to enjoy himself in NASCAR, but look at his face now. He can't hide how excited he is. It was pretty obvious Dan [Wheldon] wasn't going to stay at Ganassi. The question was who was going to replace him, and now we all know."

Danica Patrick said she didn't learn of her former Andretti Green Racing teammate's comeback until the news was formally released on Tuesday afternoon. But she added that she suspected something was up.

"[Dario] was supposed to stop by my motor coach for a beer at Detroit on Saturday night," she said. "When he didn't and we found out he was talking to Chip for a long time, I thought, 'What's going on?' "

It's not as if this deal had been brewing for a long time, although Ganassi first broached the subject about a month ago. Franchitti said that watching a couple of IndyCar practice sessions from trackside at Detroit clinched his decision.

"Seeing the cars running at speed on a road course really got me charged up," he said. "The way the schedule has evolved to look a lot like the old CART days was pretty appealing to me as well. There's a nice balance of quality road and street courses along with some good ovals."

One thing that has changed about Franchitti during his NASCAR sojourn is his appearance. After sporting a buzz cut for the past couple years of his IndyCar career, Dario's hair was back to the length he wore it in the late '90s. A request from his wife, perhaps?

"Actually, I just wanted to prove that I could grow it back," he grinned.

We should all be so lucky.

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