Dario Franchitti defends IndyCar crown
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dario Franchitti signed a contract to return to IndyCar on a napkin.
He's spent the last two years etching his legacy in stone.
Franchitti captured his third IndyCar title on Saturday night at Homestead, dominating when he had to then expertly avoiding trouble after points leader Will Power faltered, eventually finishing eighth behind Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon to edge Power by five points.
"It's a pretty good haul, isn't it?" Franchitti said.
Is it ever.
The two-time Indy 500 winner gave Ganassi his fourth championship in the last eight years with the kind of flawless performance that has become the 37-year-old Scotsman's hallmark.
"He knows what it takes to win a championship from the first race," Ganassi said.
Franchitti is pretty good in the last one too.
A year ago, he used some savvy pit strategy to leapfrog Dixon and Ryan Briscoe for the title and cap his comeback from an ill-fated trip to NASCAR.
This time, there was no such drama.
Franchitti started from the pole and with Dixon serving as a bodyguard, led a race-high 128 laps to pick up two valuable bonus points and increase the pressure on Power as the sun dipped behind the 1.5-mile oval.
Power, who'd led the points race virtually the entire season behind the strength of five road course victories, blinked. He scraped the wall on lap 135 and spent five long minutes in the pits while his Team Penske crew furiously worked to repair the damage.
By the time Power returned to the track, the points lead he'd held for four months was long gone. He limped around for a couple of laps before heading back to the pits, his otherwise remarkable season ending in disappointment.
"When you brush up against the wall, you're pretty certain it's over and done with," said Power, who finished 25th in the first race he failed to finish in two years.
With his rival watching the final laps unfold on TV, Franchitti became the first driver since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 and 2002 to successfully defend his title by avoiding catastrophe.
Once Power ducked behind the wall, Franchitti's focus turned from winning the race to finishing in the Top 10. It turned out a little more interesting than he'd hoped. His championship hopes flickered for a brief second when Milka Duno spun out in front of him with 24 laps remaining.
Franchitti celebrated with a trademark burnout while Ganassi shared a hug with Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd. The giddy scene seemed far-fetched during a long, hot summer as Power chewed through the road course portion of the schedule. Power's lead eventually swelled to 59 points after winning at Sonoma in August, the same track where Power's career nearly ended following a horrific crash a year earlier.
Franchitti, however, never panicked. He never does. He spent the last month of the season slowly chasing Power down after the schedule moved to ovals.
"At no point did I freak out," Franchitti said. "I was very aware that I might not win the championship, but there was no point in freaking out about it."
Besides, Franchitti's methodical dismantling of Power's lead over the last month seemed predestined. He called his second-place finish at Motegi two weeks ago one of the finest races of his career.
He may have been even better during the series' final visit to Homestead.
Power joked earlier this year he heard the theme from "Jaws" whenever he saw Franchitti in his rearview mirror. When it really mattered, however, it was Franchitti, not Power, that was forced to do the chasing.
The rising Team Penske star simply couldn't keep up. Nobody really does these days, even if it meant sacrificing one victory for another. He had the fastest car on Saturday and admits he wasn't exactly thrilled when the orders came to protect his tenuous championship lead when Power ran into trouble.
"It would have been nice to try and race at the front, but we had our eyes on the big prize tonight," Franchitti said.
The little prize proved pretty entertaining too.
Dixon seized control late while Andretti Autosports teammates Patrick and Kanaan put together an entertaining battle for second, with Patrick using a "gust of wind" to edge Kanaan by inches and post her second runner-up finish of the season.
"It's been a tough year," Patrick said. "I mean, it's been very frustrating. It seems like it's a second or a 20th this year for me."
She'll gladly take second before heading into an six-week stint in NASCAR's Nationwide Series to end the year.
It's a trip Franchitti made in 2008, hoping to join Tony Stewart as an IndyCar driver with the chops to make a successful move to stock cars.
Instead, his stint lasted all of 10 races before the program was cut for lack of funding. He returned to IndyCar humbled, not angry. Two years later he's etching his way into talk of the sport's all-time greats.
Ganassi thinks Franchitti is already there. The champion will leave the discussion of his place in history to others.
"I'm just going to enjoy it," he said. "I think I'm just going to let it sink in."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press