INDIANAPOLIS — Dario Franchitti needed two Indianapolis 500 victories to feel like a defending champion.
Now he’s getting used to it.
Four years after winning a rain-shortened race, the Scotsman has returned to the venue of his two biggest wins with an opportunity to — finally — become a repeat winner. He never got that chance in 2008, leaving the comfort of IndyCars for the world of stock cars.
“It’s nice to talk about last year, but my job is to win this one,” Franchitti said. “Yeah, I’ve got a shot, and I think I’ve got a good one.”
Franchitti already has a sense of what this month will entail.
In March, NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird presented Franchitti with his Indy 500 champion’s ring. A week later, he returned to Indy in hopes of knocking out some of the interview requests he expects to fill over the next two weeks.
He’s been asked to do more sponsor appearances, will participate in a sold-out fundraiser Monday night to benefit Riley Children’s Hospital of Indianapolis, and three days later will celebrate his 38th birthday.
Yes, it’s been a busy month, and if the rain actually stops this week, Franchitti will have be cramming in all of his on-the-track work before qualifying starts next weekend. In Saturday’s abbreviated practice, he was fourth on the speed chart with a best lap of 224.107 mph.
More showers washed out the six-hour session scheduled for Saturday before any cars could make it onto the track, and rain is sprinkled into the forecast for most of this week, too.
The good news is that Franchitti’s with a team, Target Chip Ganassi, and a teammate, Scott Dixon, who have endured the champion’s treatement before.
“You’re definitely a lot more in demand and it takes some time away as well,” said Dixon, the 2008 Indy winner. “As long as you get that managed well, and focus on the track, you’ll be all right.”
Franchitti could have sampled it himself after winning the 500 in 2007.
But five months after the race and just weeks after clinching the first of his three IndyCar points titles, Franchitti left Michael Andretti’s IndyCar team for Ganassi’s Sprint Cup team.
It was a miserable experience.
Franchitti failed to finish higher than 17th in his three warm-up races to close the 2007 season, then broke his left ankle in a Nationwide Series crash in 2008 at Talledega. The worst part was watching Dixon dominate the race at Indy with another ex-IndyCar driver, Max Papis, on Memorial Day weekend in Charlotte, N.C.
“It wasn’t so much about coming back and defending the title as it was driving in the Indy 500, and I missed that,” Franchitti said. “You know, I had taken that into consideration when I made the move, but I was not quite as prepared for it as I thought.”
Things got even worse in ’08.
By midseason, Franchitti’s NASCAR sponsorship dried up and just 11 months after joining the Sprint Cup series, he gave up the experiment to return to the more familiar IndyCars.
“I’m sure he had regrets about not being here (in 2008), but Dario was trying to do a different discipline and looking toward the future and I talked to him quite a bit that year,” Dixon said. “I’m sure he would have liked to have been back here as defending champ, but that’s why he had to go out and do it again.”
Since returning in 2009, Franchitti has been almost untouchable.
He qualified third for the 2009 Indy 500, finished seventh and eventually won his second points title. Last year, he qualified on the outside of the front row again at Indy, had enough fuel to win the race and celebrate again with his wife, Ashley Judd, before clinching a third points championship in the season-finale at Homestead.
Now he’s on the cusp of making history.
Only five Indy 500 drivers have won back-to-back titles — Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich, Al Unser and Helio Castroneves, who won in 2001 and 2002. And only one foreign-born driver, Castroneves of Brazil, has won three titles.
Franchitti could put himself on both lists if he can defend his title for the first time.
“It’s certainly more intense and there are a lot more things to do. A day here, a day there, it all adds up, but the on-track stuff always comes first,” Franchitti said. “And I’d sure like to do it again.”