Franchitti Maintains His Focus
Curt Cavin, IndyStar.com
The IZOD IndyCar Series features an abundance of change amid a season of transition, yet Dario Franchitti welcomes more of the same for Ganassi Racing.
He seeks another Indianapolis 500 victory followed by another season championship.
Both are possible because while Franchitti's team has contributed to IndyCar's changes off the track, he expects similar results on it, starting Sunday on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.
"The reason this team has won so much is that it goes to races with a certain attitude of no compromise," Franchitti said. "Nothing gets in the way, and I don't see that changing."
The potential distraction is Chip Ganassi's new two-car outfit based in Brownsburg. The drivers are star-on-the-rise Graham Rahal and rookie Charlie Kimball, and they'll have all of the Ganassi tools to work with.
Meanwhile, at company headquarters 15 miles to the east, a third 500 win since 2008 and a fourth straight series title are within reach for the combination of Franchitti and Scott Dixon. But no distractions are allowed.
"If Chip wasn't the boss, I'd be really worried about (the expansion)," Franchitti said. "But he won't let anything interfere with the running of the Target team."
Franchitti is more worried about being dethroned by Dixon, the 2008 Indy and season champion who has 14 wins over the past three seasons. But Franchitti, who is seeking a record third consecutive title, figures to spend as much time battling Team Penske's Will Power.
Power was last season's most dominant driver, winning five races, eight poles and being more competitive on the ovals than his 11.4 average finish suggests.
"Dario won the championship in a very, very smart way," 2004 series champ Tony Kanaan said. "But if Power gets it right on ovals, he will be very, very tough to beat."
Like Franchitti, Power's toughest competition might come from within his own team. Helio Castroneves (three wins last year) and Ryan Briscoe (one) are coming off what they consider to be disappointing years.
Rahal gives Ganassi's team another potential race winner and title threat. It also evens the score with Roger Penske as both owners have three legitimate bullets to fire. Good for them, not so much for others.
Only Kanaan and former Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay won last year from outside the Ganassi and Penske camps. Justin Wilson, then with Dale Coyne Racing, was the only such winner in 2009.
Former CART champion and KV Racing Technology co-owner Jimmy Vasser said this season will be too competitive for Ganassi and Penske to win so often. He recently signed Kanaan, and Wilson returns to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for a second season.
Four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais will compete on the road and street circuits for Dale Coyne's team. Michael Andretti's team still has Hunter-Reay, a two-time race winner in the series.
"I think things are getting more competitive," Vasser said. "I think four or five races can be had (by the other teams)."
By midseason, all eyes will be on Danica Patrick to see if she re-signs with Andretti Autosport or chooses NASCAR.
Other story lines this season include the return of Mike Conway, who survived a horrific crash at the end of last year's 500. Always fast, Conway fills the seat at Andretti vacated by Kanaan, a regular with the team since 2003.
The rookie class has a host of Firestone Indy Lights veterans: Kimball, J.R. Hildebrand (Panther Racing), Ana Beatriz (Dreyer & Reinbold) and Sebastian Saavedra (Conquest Racing). James Hinchcliffe (Newman-Haas Racing) is not on the entry list for St. Pete but is likely to run some events. GP3 product James Jakes starts the season with Coyne's team, and Wade Cunningham (Sam Schmidt Motorsports) will compete in four events.
The Fazzt Race Team was acquired by Sam Schmidt, a former IndyCar driver, and AFS Racing, which employs Rafa Matos, is moving up from Indy Lights. More teams are expected to participate in the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 in May.
Equipment will be a discussion point as a new chassis design is scheduled for testing in July and introduction in 2012. Double-file restarts will be new this year.
The schedule has four new events: Milwaukee; Loudon, N.H.; Baltimore and Las Vegas, plus a doubleheader in Fort Worth, Texas. Las Vegas will feature a $5 million bonus to a winner from outside the IndyCar ranks.