- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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It wasn't too much of a surprise to see Dario Franchitti last weekend at the Detroit Grand Prix. His presence in the Target/Ganassi Racing pit seemed natural, given his affiliation with Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team.
Besides, he was there to watch his younger brother, Marino, compete in the American Le Mans Series sports car race. A social weekend, just like when he used to occasionally show up at Surfers Paradise, Australia, for the Champ Car race.
At some point while he was in Detroit, Franchitti's mind turned to business. And when Ganassi offered the 35-year-old Scotsman a chance to return to the IndyCar Series after a hesitant start to his stock car career, Franchitti jumped at the chance.
He'll replace Dan Wheldon in the team's No. 10 car in 2009.
"Chip and I were talking a lot about different options for next year," Franchitti revealed. "That's one of the great things about driving for Chip -- you can do all these different things. There was that chance to continue in NASCAR with the 41, but since the 40 shut down, Chip kind of threw out there a couple of times, 'What do you think about doing IndyCar again?'
"At first I wasn't sure, and I wanted to make sure my head would be 100 percent in it," he continued. "I stood at Detroit and watched the guys go 'round, and that just made up my mind for me. I thought, 'I've gotta do this,' and Chip and I sat down and got the deal done really quickly."
With the exception of an embarrassing DNQ at the Infineon Raceway road course, Franchitti acquitted himself reasonably well in stock cars. In his most recent Nationwide Series outings, he claimed pole position and a top-5 finish at Watkins Glen, and led 87 laps prior to dropping to an 11th-place finish at Bristol.
I think it's going to be a huge influx for the team. To have a driver like Dario at our team is going to be spectacular, and we're definitely going to be a force next year.
-- Scott Dixon
Still, he couldn't pass on the chance to step into a championship-caliber car in the IndyCar Series.
"To be offered one of the very best, if not the best, rides out there, this is too good an opportunity to turn down," said Franchitti, who won the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series championship in 2007. "I definitely missed competing at Indy, I missed the road and street courses and the short ovals, too."
Franchitti will be the fourth driver that Ganassi has run in the No. 10 since he expanded his IndyCar team to two cars full-time in 2003, following Tomas Scheckter, Darren Manning and Wheldon. Dixon has driven the No. 9 for that entire duration.
Dixon said he was as surprised as anyone about the news that Franchitti will be his teammate.
"I think it's going to be a huge influx for the team," he said. "To have a driver like Dario at our team is going to be spectacular, and we're definitely going to be a force next year. Hopefully we can win another championship and another [Indianapolis] 500 for Ganassi."
Wheldon was the most successful driver to date in the No. 10, winning six races over the past three years. But after coming close to winning the 2006 IndyCar Series championship in his first year with the team, Wheldon has generally been outpaced by Dixon, especially on road and street courses.
His status within the Ganassi team has been publicly questioned for the past couple of months, and his departure might simply be the result of a personality conflict. Wheldon interacts with the public as much as possible and seems to enjoy his stardom, and he travels with a small entourage, which kind of goes against the grain of the Ganassi organization.
"None of us are real high-profile guys, to begin with," said Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull. "We're all very dedicated to doing what we enjoy the most, which is racing. Not to take away from anybody else in motor racing that we race with -- and that would include Dan Wheldon -- it doesn't take away from anybody. It just happens to be our M.O. And it works."
Wheldon didn't last long on the free-agent market. Less than two hours after his departure from Ganassi was announced, he revealed he has signed a multiyear agreement with Panther Racing to drive the No. 4 car.
"It's been an entertaining few weeks," Wheldon said with a chuckle.
"Chip made me an offer to stay on during the month of May and it looked like it was going to be a quiet silly season.
"But after what happened at Kentucky [when Ganassi made a play to sign Tony Kanaan away from Andretti Green Racing], I definitely needed a change, and I really believe this is an opportunity to win races right off the bat next year and make this one of the big four teams very quickly. It was a decision I was happy to make and something that I'm excited to be part of."
It's likely that Panther will continue a single car in 2009, though the team hosted former Formula One driver Anthony Davidson at Detroit with an eye toward adding a second entry.
"We're going to have to be disciplined in our approach, and if you're going to run another car, I think it's incredibly important that it doesn't take away from the first one," Wheldon said. "For me, personally, I think it's kind of attractive that it's a one-car team for right now. Our focus is very clear-cut."
The move to Panther represents a homecoming for the 30-year-old Englishman, who began his IndyCar career with three starts for the Brownsburg, Ind.-based team as a part-time rookie teammate to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2002.
"It's hard to describe the level of excitement and emotions all of us at Panther have knowing that Dan has come back to drive for us," said John Barnes, team managing partner and CEO. "I remember watching him drive for the first time in the Indy Lights series years ago, and I knew he was going to be a special talent. Since then he's become one of the best open-wheel drivers in the world, and for him to make his return to our team at the height of his racing career is a tremendous compliment to our team.
"I know he's excited about getting into the No. 4 car for the first time, and we've got a tremendous future ahead of us."
Panther Racing was one of the IndyCar Series' marquee teams from 1997 to 2002, winning two series championships with Hornish. The influx of top CART and Champ Car teams in 2003 and 2004 generally pushed Panther back to the second tier, although the team is generally very competitive on 1.5-mile ovals.
Tomas Scheckter scored Panther's last race win at Texas Motor Speedway in June 2005. The team's current driver, Brazilian Vitor Meira, scored seven top-5 finishes and claimed fifth place in the
2006 standings, but has slipped down the field in the past two years.
Barnes hopes that bringing home former IndyCar Series champion Wheldon, who went on to win 15 races with Andretti Green Racing and Ganassi Racing -- including the 2005 Indianapolis 500 -- will help Panther regain its Hornish-era form. Panther teamed with the rising American star to claim 11 victories between 2001 and 2003.
Wheldon won at Kansas and Iowa this year and ranks fourth in the IndyCar standings heading into the season finale at Chicagoland Speeedway.
The Franchitti and Wheldon signings leave 31-year-old Meira, who is winless in 91 IndyCar starts, as the series' top unsigned driver going into the offseason.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.