Commentary

Franchitti plays Miami hand perfectly

Updated: October 11, 2009, 9:54 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- There were two races within the race-within-a-race Saturday at Homestead Miami Speedway in the Firestone Indy 300.

On a day when Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe separated themselves from the rest of the field and battled for the IndyCar Series championship in a caution-flag-free race, Dixon and Briscoe broke free from Franchitti and ran the event as a sprint.

Franchitti and his side of Target Chip Ganassi Racing treated it like a marathon and saved their energy for the end. And it won them a race and a championship.

Briscoe and Dixon swapped the lead several times and pulled out nearly a full lap on Franchitti, but they both had to pit for fuel in the final eight laps. The Scotsman, meanwhile, had paced himself perfectly through the first three-quarters of the race and completed the 300 miles on only three pit stops, one fewer than his championship rivals.

As a result, he crossed the line first, 4.79 seconds ahead of Briscoe and 6 seconds before Dixon. Dixon pipped Briscoe for second in the standings by one point, but Franchitti topped them both for his second career IndyCar Series title to go with the one he won in 2007 while driving for Andretti Green Racing.

[+] EnlargeDario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi
AP Photo/Terry RennaTeam owner Chip Ganassi, right, said he knew Dario Franchitti was the perfect driver to pull off an alternate pit strategy and win a title.

In a way, the race was a microcosm of the 2009 IndyCar Series season.

Franchitti led 25 laps at Homestead, compared to 70 for Dixon and 103 for Briscoe, who had the greatest need for the two bonus points for leading the most laps. Over the course of the year, Franchitti's 485 laps led trailed Briscoe's 739 and Dixon's 815.

Yet Franchitti matched Dixon's tally of five race wins, and his overall greater consistency led to a second IndyCar crown.

"I've always said there are a lot of guys that can win races, but there aren't nearly as many that can win championships, and that's the kind of guy Dario is," said victorious team owner Chip Ganassi. "He sneaks up on you; I think if you look at his lap chart about where he runs in the races, he's kind of always back there in third, fourth, but then for some reason at the checkered flag, he's always up there where the big points are. He's that kind of guy."

At Homestead, Franchitti didn't run -- as Dixon and Briscoe put it -- "balls to the wall," but he drove with great discipline and with an eye on the big picture.

"Luckily having two cars in the championship fight, with Scott and myself, we managed to split the strategy," Franchitti said. "And mine worked out."

At the start, it appeared the Ganassi drivers were going to race flat-out for it. Dixon and pole man Franchitti ran the first 10 laps virtually side by side until Dario appeared to back off and settled in line behind his teammate and Briscoe.

He was four seconds back by the first round of pit stops, triggered by Briscoe on Lap 45. Franchitti went five laps further, and even by that point in the race, it was clear that Dario and the No. 10 car were making the mileage to finish the race on three stops.

And his rivals weren't.

Dixon We obviously hoped a few guys put it in the fence, but it wasn't the way it rolled today.

-- Scott Dixon

For Briscoe, the unusually early stop was unintentional.

"We pitted early in the first stint," admitted the Team Penske driver. "The tires went off worse in the first run than in the rest of the race, and I started really getting loose at the end of my first stint. I was going to be getting into trouble. I caught a lot of lap traffic and we chose to pit a couple of laps earlier than we could have, just to get out of traffic and get some new rubber on the car.

"That's where it sort of set off the strategy for the rest of the day."

What was surprising was that Dixon -- normally the master of fuel conservation -- followed Briscoe into the pits. With the championship in mind, the Ganassi team elected to put him on Briscoe's pit stop sequence and let Franchitti run his own race at his own pace.

Briscoe and Dixon stopped again on Lap 96; Franchitti made it to Lap 100, nine seconds behind on the track, but right on schedule on fuel. The leaders pitted again on Lap 144, and once again Franchitti made it to his number at Lap 150.

But surely, in the name of Milka Duno, there would be a caution at some point in the race … wouldn't there?

"Ryan and I were actually joking about that after the race," Dixon said. "It was tough to even stay flat. The cars were sliding around everywhere, and we had the good cars! So I can't imagine what some of the others were putting up with, and nobody went into the fence. That was not good for us.

"We obviously hoped a few guys put it in the fence, but it wasn't the way it rolled today."

The sprint race was 24 seconds ahead of Franchitti when they peeled off one final time, Dixon on Lap 192, Briscoe on Lap 194. It was over. The tortoise beat the hares, if you can think of a winner's race average speed of 201.420 mph "slow."

[+] EnlargeDario Franchitti Ashley Judd
AP Photo/Terry RennaDario Franchitti and wife Ashley Judd have ended their last two IndyCar Series seasons the same way -- with a championship kiss.

In fact, it was the second-fastest race in IndyCar Series history.

Appropriately, all three of the championship protagonists were in a class of their own Saturday. Fourth-place finisher Tony Kanaan was a lap down.

Franchitti certainly wasn't apologizing for the way he achieved the race win, and by extension, the championship.

"It would have been fun to run full rich up at the front with those boys, but it's all about the result," he said. "A win is a win; you stick to your plan."

"It takes quite a driver to have the ability to maintain his composure during a race like how the race played out today," added Ganassi. "That's strictly a level of maturity and a level of confidence in yourself, and being a champion before and knowing what it takes to be a champion."

It was Ganassi's seventh open-wheel title -- four consecutive in CART (1996-99) and two additional in the IndyCar Series with Dixon in 2003 and 2008.

Franchitti was involved in that 1999 championship battle. While driving for Team Green, he lost the points race to Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya on a tiebreaker.

On that day, Franchitti's best friend, Greg Moore, was killed in a one-car accident, and Dario paid tribute to his fallen comrade after Saturday's triumph.

"On the slow-down lap there I was thinking about my buddy Greg," he said. "It was 10 years ago I was in a championship fight with the Target boys and Montoya and it didn't really matter because we lost Greg. That was 10 years ago this month, so this one's for him."

Believe it or not, whether Franchitti comes back to defend his title with Ganassi next year is still in question. Ganassi and TCGR managing director Mike Hull told a great story of how Franchitti decided to come back to Indy cars with the team, signing a makeshift contract on a cocktail napkin. But the driver and the team owner were evasive in terms of talking about their status for 2010 and beyond.

"That's up to the boss," Franchitti said.

One thing is for sure: As a two-time IndyCar Series champion, Franchitti's value -- to Ganassi Racing and to the series itself -- just increased.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.

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