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.
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."