SPARTA, Ky. — Jimmie Johnson has won five consecutive championships, yet doesn’t always get the proper recognition — both in NASCAR and across all professional sports — for such a remarkable feat.
The same could be said about Dario Franchitti.
Franchitti moved a step closer to his fourth IndyCar title Sunday with a second-place run at Kentucky Speedway. He overcame a poor qualifying effort to lead a race-high 143 laps before losing a wheel-to-wheel race to the finish line with Ed Carpenter.
But the strong run, coupled with a pit-road accident that ruined Will Power’s day, sends Franchitti into the Oct. 16 season finale at Las Vegas with an 18-point lead in the standings. It was a huge swing for Franchitti, who began the day trailing Power by 12 and now has a third consecutive title in sight.
Franchitti can use these next two weeks to consider a strategy for Las Vegas, while Power admitted post-race his only remaining chance is “putting 100 percent focus on getting the pole, leading the most laps, winning the race … just working even harder to make sure we turn up with something special at Las Vegas.”
In one breath, Power admits he’s got to be perfect in the final race to dethrone Franchitti. In the next, he credits Franchitti’s success — specifically the 2009 and 2010 championships — to a long lucky streak.
Franchitti won the 2009 title by conserving fuel in the finale, then he overcame an 11-point deficit to win last year’s championship when Power brushed the wall with 66 laps remaining.
“Dario has had very good luck, and we have had very bad luck,” Power said Sunday. “The guy has just been unbelievably lucky when you look at the championships he’s won.”
Sounds a little like a backhanded compliment, no?
It also sounds a lot like the chatter that clouds Johnson’s record run through NASCAR. Those who don’t respect his five titles have a litany of excuses for his success: Johnson drives for the best team, he has the best crew chief, he benefits from the championship format, on and on the list goes.
The reality, though, is that Johnson puts himself in position to win and doesn’t make mistakes that take him out of championship contention. He’s also got a laser-sharp focus and ability to concern himself only on what he needs to do to be successful.
Franchitti is very much the same way. He knows what he’s got to do, how to approach the task at hand and how to manage the highs and lows of motorsports.
“He’s very much got a ‘been there, done that’ attitude and that adds a lot to when you are in a battle like the one we are in right now,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “I would think there’s more to it than luck. Dario doesn’t drive for the best team, so that’s something right there that Jimmie Johnson has on him.
“But it takes a total team effort, and Dario has a great ability to make his team want to work hard for him.”
Maybe that comes from age or experience, and it’s probably no coincidence that Franchitti’s first title came in 2007, his 10th season in IndyCar. Maybe it took him a decade to figure out what it takes to be a champion at the top level, but once he had that title, he considered his resume complete and bolted to NASCAR with Ganassi.
Only 2008 was a horrendous year for auto racing, which was reeling from the economic collapse and a lack of sponsorship forced his Sprint Cup Series team to shutter after only 10 starts. He went back to IndyCar the next year and claimed the next two championships, so if not for that one-year hiatus, Franchitti maybe could have been looking for a fifth straight title next week.
Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon, who won the IndyCar title in 2008 when Franchitti was not competing, joked Sunday it was that stint in stock cars that started his run. Dixon also acknowledged the role luck has played, but noted that Franchitti has done his part to make luck pay off.
“He’s obviously winning races, he’s very consistent,” Dixon said. “It’s like he has little angel wings or something because even on a bad day they seem to pull it through. That’s what it’s all about. Championships, you’ve got to have consistency, you have to dominate some races. He’s making sure that he makes the most of it.”
Just like Johnson?
“Yeah, I think it’s the same,” Dixon said. “The competition level here is extremely tough. You’ve got to be on your game. I don’t know if we call him little or big Jimmie, he’s got a lot more hair than Jimmie … but obviously very cool for Dario. It’s definitely a hot streak.”
With his four victories this season, Franchitti’s total of 30 has moved four spots on IndyCar’s all-time wins list to ninth. This season, he’s passed Rodger Ward, Dixon, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears — none of whom are slouches. One more win would tie him with Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais, and the entire Unser family is within reach: Al Unser Sr.’s 39 victories rank fourth all-ti me.
Franchitti doesn’t want to get caught up in lists or accomplishments or comparisons, especially with Johnson, whom he considers “a pal of mine” and follows from afar. Maybe someday he can be lured into that debate, but today he only wants to think about Las Vegas.
“I’m not thinking about what’s happened before,” he said. “I think if you get too distracted thinking, ‘Oh, man, three championships,’ whatever, you’re losing focus. So I’m just thinking about Vegas next week now, what I have to do there to get number four. When eventually I retire, I’ll think about things in that wider picture.”