Commentary

Franchitti in middle of family feud he won't be able to win

Dario Franchitti has been toying with the idea of checking out NASCAR. After IndyCar Series team owner Michael Andretti made Franchitti a scapegoat at Sonoma, he probably should check his options, writes Bruce Martin.

Updated: August 26, 2007, 11:11 PM ET
By Bruce Martin | Special to ESPN.com

SONOMA, Calif. -- The IndyCar Series has its own version of a Family Feud but ironically, it involves members of the same race team.

When Dario Franchitti ran into Marco Andretti on Lap 69 of Sunday's Motorola Indy 300, team owner Michael Andretti was livid. But this was an instance when blood was definitely thicker than water because in the grand scheme, Franchitti is racing for a $1 million series title while Marco Andretti was racing for his second career victory.

Franchitti, who dominated Sunday's race by leading four times for 62 laps, finished third. But a mistake for the third race in a row has knocked the Scotsman out of the points lead for the first time since Milwaukee on June 3.

Scott Dixon, who at times felt as if he were in a gang fight with the four AGR drivers that includes Tony Kanaan and Danica Patrick, won the race and took over the series points lead. He has a four-point advantage over Franchitti with two races to go and the 2003 series champion made up points on Franchitti for the sixth race in a row.

Now that the details are out of the way the verbal comments that were being fired between Michael Andretti and Franchitti afterwards has created "Family Feud" IndyCar style.

Where's Richard Dawson when you need him?

Here's the scenario. Franchitti entered the race with an eight-point lead and started on the pole. His race appeared so flawless that it looked like Dixon's championship charge was going to suffer a setback.

When Franchitti pitted on Lap 64, he was the leader and that put Dixon in front. Dixon pitted three laps later and that gave the lead to young Andretti, the defending winner of this race who had used a brilliant strategy to work his way into contention.

Andretti pitted and peeled off pit road, hoping to get out ahead of Franchitti, who had taken over the lead once the green-flag pit stop sequence was completed.

Both drivers were fighting for the victory but only one is in contention for a title.

Andretti and Franchitti collided between Turns 1 and 2, sending Andretti's car off the course and into the tire barrier. The impact damaged the front wing on Franchitti's car but he was able to continue in the race.

Michael Andretti took off his headset and slammed it to the ground.

[+] EnlargeDario Franchitti
Darrell Ingham/Getty ImagesDario Franchitti led most of the race until his late run-in with a teammate.

Obviously, at that point Andretti was reacting more as a father than a team owner. But this incident not only cost his team a race victory, it may ultimately cost it a championship.

Suddenly, Franchitti is the bad guy on his own team. He had the audacity to knock the "Golden Child" off the course and quickly drew the ire of the team owner.

"I'm highly disappointed," Michael Andretti said. "All Dario had to do wait was one turn and we would have had a 1-2 finish and that would have opened up the points lead. We should have left out of here with a 20-point lead and now we're leaving with a four-point deficit.

"I think Dario should have had patience. He had a teammate that would have let him by and fall in and finish second. Dario should have had more patience than that."

In the heat of a championship chase, the pressure starts to build. And it's the self-inflicted damage that hurts worse than getting beat on the race track by a better driver.

"Today was totally self-inflicted," Michael Andretti said. "I'm sure he [Franchitti] isn't going to sleep very well tonight."

If Franchitti had any thoughts of leaving the IndyCar team after this season, they probably increased dramatically after Sunday.

"It was a pretty perfect day right up until Marco and I got together in Turn 1," Franchitti said. "We'd come close to getting together earlier on in the pits. He was out there on cold tires going a good bit slower.

"Marco was out there trying to win the race and we were out there trying to win a championship. He had his priorities and I had mine. You saw what happened."

And it's comments like the one from Andretti that makes this year's Indianapolis 500 winner wonder if his championship bid isn't about to come apart at the seams.

"Michael is in an awkward position being a team owner and a father," Franchitti said. "Sometimes he doesn't have as clear a view as he should have as a team owner maybe."

The incident was all about timing. On a the 12-turn, 2.26-mile course, Andretti pitted, left the pits and returned to the course just in front of Franchitti.

A second earlier or a second later and who knows if there would have been any contact at all?

"That was one of those things that nobody knows, with the strategy, that's going to end up with us coming and out -- me coming out and him coming out at the same point," Franchitti said. "That's not something the team can really time that well.

"As I say, we've got to be clear in our priority. Are we trying to win a championship or are we trying to win other stuff?"

Franchitti said he feels the priorities are out of whack; that when young Andretti has a chance to win, the decision becomes clouded from the No. 1 goal, which is to win the IndyCar Series championship. That championship is worth $1 million.

Marco Andretti is 10th in points, which in the IndyCar points structure probably pays about $1.

One of the things that is genetic with the Andrettis is their outstanding ability to drive a racecar -- from Mario's career that made him arguably the "Driver of the Century" to Michael's fearlessness behind the wheel of an IndyCar to young Marco's potential.

The other thing that is common with all three Andrettis is the inability to admit to a mistake and take blame that maybe the wisest thing to do is to make sure the championship contending driver has the priority.

The family owns the "Andretti Winery" in nearby Napa, Calif.

After Sunday's debacle, maybe it should be renamed the "Andretti Whinery" because there was plenty of whining heard from the AGR camp.

One would think that Franchitti actually stomped on the grapes himself.

"I gave racing room and I was hoping [Franchitti] would race me clean," Marco Andretti said. "I hate to think he'd do anything intentional. I was saving so much fuel and my car was good enough that we were still catching them as we were saving fuel and that was the win right there.

"If he would have played fair, that would have happened."

Dario Franchitti
As I say, we've got to be clear in our priority. Are we trying to win a championship or are we trying to win other stuff?

Dario Franchitti

Franchitti's contract is up at the end of this season and he never signs more than a one-year deal at AGR. After winning the Indianapolis 500 this past May, it has allowed the driver from Scotland the peace of mind to choose what he wants to do next because he has already accomplished one of his big goals.

His most likely move would be to sports car racing, either with the Rolex Grand American Series of the American Le Mans Series. But when he admitted he has talked to NASCAR team owner Richard Childress about a stock car ride, some dismiss it as a negotiation tactic to increase his contract demands.

"At some point I'd like to drive one of the [NASCAR] cars to see what it is like," Franchitti said Saturday afternoon after winning the pole. "Right now I'm looking around. I'm looking at a lot of different options at the end of the season including staying here, doing sports cars, and the NASCAR thing is interesting to me as well.

"I think anybody who loves racing would be a fool not to look at the NASCAR thing. I have to make a decision reasonably soon which direction I'm going. What intrigues me is the racing side of things and the challenge of it. It would be something new, something unknown and different. I've done this for a long time. I've really enjoyed doing this. I like the sports cars as well. I said to the bosses last year, I want to win Indy. I want to win a championship and I want to win Indy. That has definitely relaxed me as a driver to have won that race."

When asked about Franchitti's comments, Andretti laughed out loud and said, "Can you see Dario doing 38 races in a season? He has a hard enough time with our 17-race schedule. Can you see him doing all of those personal appearances? I can't.

"But if he wants to try something different, that's up to him."

After being made the scapegoat at Sonoma, Franchitti may be wise to do just that.

Bruce Martin is a freelance contributor to ESPN.com.