HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Dario Franchitti still gets a little bit awestruck whenever he talks to A.J. Foyt.
Same goes for when he’s around Mario Andretti. Ditto Rick Mears.
“These guys are legends of the sport,” Franchitti said. “These guys are special.”
Yet when pressed about whether he’s inching closer to joining his idols in the pantheon of open-wheel greats, especially after collecting his third IndyCar series championship on Saturday night at Homestead, the 37-year-old Scotsman ran his fingers through his hair and shrugged.
“That’s not the sort of thing you’d say about yourself,” he said. “As I said before, I’m really proud of the results. I just want to keep going.”
Don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon.
Franchitti’s third IndyCar title in the last four years lacked the audaciousness of his fuel-sipping gamble at Homestead a year ago, when he leapfrogged Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe for the title.
Instead, there was something coolly efficient about the way Franchitti whittled away at Will Power’s points lead over the season’s final weeks.
When Power’s advantage swelled to nearly 60 after winning in Sonoma in August, Franchitti didn’t “freak out.” He did the math.
There was plenty of time left to make up ground. He turned the final four stops into de facto match races. If he finished ahead of Power each time, he’d be fine.
Franchitti went 4-0, finally catching the rising Team Penske star during the circuit’s final visit to the 1.5-mile oval with the palm trees lining the backstretch. He took the pole, led the most laps and then backed off after Power’s No. 12 Honda ran into trouble trying desperately to keep up. He cruised home in eighth to edge Power by five points.
It only seemed like 500.
Franchitti’s flawless driving on Saturday night played in stark contrast to Power’s uncharacteristic wobbling. He scraped the wall trying to play catchup and ended up watching the end of the race from behind the wall while finishing 25th.
Power’s only hope over the final miles was for Franchitti to meet with disaster. He nearly got his wish when Milka Duno spun out right in front of Franchitti with 26 laps remaining.
Franchitti muttered an expletive as Duno’s car careened into the wall. And he just kept right on driving.
“Dario is pretty good at dodging those,” Power said.
And while Franchitti chalks some of his success to luck, he also allows he’s never been better behind the wheel. He called his second-place finish at Motegi in the season’s penultimate race one of the best performances of his career.
“Japan was possibly one of the most aggressive and trouble-free races, mistake-free races I’ve ever driven,” he said. “(It’s) probably in the top five races I’ve ever driven in my life.”
It’s a heady statement from a driver with two Indy 500s, three series championships and 26 open-wheel victories. It’s also a message that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.
His 2009 title served as validation that he was back where he belonged following an ill-fated foray into NASCAR in 2008. The experience in stock cars left him humbled and focused.
The hunger to win returned. So did the results. And while there are tiny flecks of gray in his stubble, he’s too busy enjoying his career revival to think about moving on.
That’s not exactly great news for the rest of the series.
“I think he’s definitely come on,” Dixon said. “They say that kind of about triathletes, your mid-30s are kind of your peak. He’s getting close to 40, so he’s stretching the window.”
And the view is pretty sweet. Not one for introspection, Franchitti brushed aside talk about his place in history. He simply wants to live in the moment. He’s been around long enough to know nothing is guaranteed. His pit stop in NASCAR taught him that.
“I think I’m just going to let it sink in, enjoy it,” he said.
He celebrated his title with a burnout, a kiss from wife Ashley Judd and a couple of backslaps with Ganassi. This is where he’s supposed to be, leading the charge for the series’ top team.
While Ganassi was gracious in victory, praising Power and Penske for a remarkable season, his team is now the one to beat. His drivers have won three straight championships and two of the last three 500s.
Ganassi, whose NASCAR operation has won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 this year, is quick to praise his sponsors, his crew and his drivers.
“To have consistency and to build consistency and to build history together, you get rewarded with events like (a championship),” Ganassi said.
Asked how much longer Franchitti can keep it up, Ganassi joked “at least one more year.” Franchitti’s current deal with Ganassi runs through the end of next season.
It’s a partnership both sides would like to continue. As long as it does, expect Franchitti to continue to inch closer to his heroes, whether he wants to talk about it or not.
“You can still see the fire, and you can see he’s an extremely competitive person,” Dixon said. “Right now you’d have to say that he’s at his peak.”