Dario Franchitti opened the season, with four championships and 30 career victories, with the chance to move into very elite status.
Two wins this year would push Franchitti into seventh on the all-time wins list, and the only drivers ahead of him are the icons of open-wheel racing. Three of them are Unsers, two are Andrettis, and the all-time wins leader is A.J. Foyt himself.
Pretty solid company but not something Franchitti’s dwelling on during his 14th full season.
“Let’s see if I win another one first,” he said. “I mean that quite literally. I don’t think you can ever take for granted winning another race. It would be wonderful, a great feeling for me, to be in that kind of thing. But let’s see if I can win another race before we start talking about that.”
It seemed a bit silly at the time for Franchitti to question his ability to win races. After all, he has collected 12 wins and three consecutive titles since returning to IndyCar in 2009 following a brief NASCAR stint.
Maybe he made it look easy the last three years. Right now, it appears to be a challenge.
Franchitti is off to one of the roughest starts of his IndyCar career. The Scot was 13th in the season opener, used what he called “one of the greatest drives of my career” to finish 10th at Barber and slipped to 15th Sunday in Long Beach after starting from the pole.
He enters this off weekend 13th in the IndyCar standings. It’s his lowest ranking since he finished 18th in the 2005 season opener. And it’s his worst start to the season since 2004, when he opened with a pair of 17th-place finishes, a seventh and a 14th. His worst overall season was 2006, the only year he failed to finish a race, and ended up a career-worst eighth in the final standings.
Franchitti has always managed to turn things around, so he wasn’t about to hit the panic button following Sunday’s race.
“What’s the point? I mean really what’s the point in worrying about it?” he asked. “I’ve said it too many times. You do your absolute best and some weeks it just all happens and some weeks it doesn’t look good but it still goes your way, and some weeks are like (Sunday).
“We’ve had a lot of weekends where everything has just gone well for us, so sometimes you have to expect the opposite. Hopefully it ends very, very soon.”
Change might be what’s ailing Franchitti right now.
IndyCar has introduced its first new car in nine years. During most of his testing the location of the brake pedals forced him to use his left foot. It was awkward and uncomfortable for the career right-foot braker, who felt he was being forced to relearn to drive.
IndyCar and manufacturer Dallara approved a new pedal for him toward the end of January. But it didn’t get in his car until a test session at Sebring, a little more than two weeks before the season opener, so Franchitti’s still learning the car. It doesn’t help that his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team is powered by Honda, which has been easily handled so far this season by rival Chevrolet.
Although a Honda driver has been on the podium each of the first three races — Franchitti’s teammate Dixon finished second in the first two, and Simon Pagenaud was second at Long Beach — Chevrolet drivers from Ganassi rival Penske Racing have won all three poles and all three races this season.
“To sit here and come up with a bunch of excuses — I don’t want to do that,” Franchitti said. “It really just comes down to me getting comfortable with the balance of the car.”
His peers consider Franchitti a finesse driver who spends the opening days of a race weekend perfecting the car setup, then taking it out for what seems like a causal Sunday drive.
“He’s a good, tough competitor,” said Will Power, runner-up to Franchitti the last two seasons. “He’s very good at his job and hard to beat.”
But Power is among those who have publicly marveled at what they consider an unbelievable streak of luck that has given Franchitti finishes and wins he maybe didn’t earn. Perhaps, but it takes a lot more than luck to win two Indianapolis 500s and championships in four of the last five seasons.
“He came over here, and immediately he was a factor,” said Mario Andretti, who ranks second on the all-time list with 52 victories. “He’s been a factor ever since. He wins races and championships, and you don’t win championships over and over just being lucky. He’s a great person, very intelligent, a sophisticated guy, and you can talk to him about politics, you don’t have to talk racing.
“He’s absolutely the complete package.”
Although Franchitti won 10 races in the former CART Series, his first championship didn’t come until 2007, a full 10 years after he’d joined the top level of American open-wheel racing. His younger brother, Marino, remembers the frustration of watching his brother fall short in his goals.
“I think I had unrealistic thoughts about what he should achieve. He was my big brother, and I always expected him to win,” Marino said. “And I could get quite upset if he didn’t win. But then 2007, he finally started to put it altogether. Since then, he’s achieved more than I thought was possible, and that’s because he works so hard.
“If he feels he has a weakness, he makes himself better through hard work. He thinks about it all the time. He thinks about motorsports all the time. It’s his job, and it’s what he loves.”
In all that time thinking, though, Franchitti insists he’s never considered his place in history. He grew up idolizing Andretti, Ayrton Senna, Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart and Gilles Villeneuve. Never did he imagine being mentioned in the same conversations as those racing greats.
Last season, a four-win campaign, saw Franchitti pass Helio Castroneves, Rodger Ward, Dixon, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears on the all-time wins list. His final win of the season, at Toronto in July, pushed him past Mears for ninth on the list.
He didn’t reflect on it then, and he hasn’t since.
“Rick Mears and I were talking once. He said ‘If you think you belong in the company of your heroes, there’s something wrong with you,’” Franchitti said. “I can’t argue with that. The numbers could be wherever they are on the list. But those guys are my heroes, and I just don’t think of myself as one of them.”