BACK WHERE HE BELONGS
Franchitti at home on IndyCar circuit
By Nicole Auerbach, Globe Correspondent
LOUDON, N.H. - In the fall of 2007, Dario Franchitti decided to try something new.
He called it an experiment; the rest of us call it NASCAR.
Franchitti, who won both the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Championship in 2007, said he was looking for a challenge after a decade spent racing open-wheel cars.
Team owner Chip Ganassi offered Franchitti a chance to compete in NASCAR’s Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. He accepted.
“I was looking for something different,’’ Franchitti said. “Pretty quickly into that experience, I realized how much I was missing driving IndyCar. I was doing NASCAR, trying very hard to make it work, understanding different cars, learning the style of racing, learning new tracks, learning a completely new language.
“But my heart was really still in IndyCar.’’
Late in August 2008, Franchitti watched his brother, Marino, compete in an American Le Mans Series event in Detroit. Before his brother’s race, Franchitti stood by Turn 1 of the track and watched IndyCar practice. Within five minutes, Franchitti said, he knew he had to return to open-wheel racing.
The NASCAR experiment was over, doomed by a lack of sponsorship and success. Franchitti’s first race back in IndyCar was the Nikon Indy 300, a non-points race in Australia in October 2008.
“The first time I drove a car again, it was like, ‘OK, yes. This is what I missed. This is what I love,’ ’’ he said.
Since his return to IndyCar, Franchitti has won 12 races - including the 2010 Indianapolis 500 - and the Izod IndyCar Series championship each of the past two years.
His last two championships differed from his first in 2007 because the landscape of IndyCar racing changed dramatically during Franchitti’s one-year hiatus.
In the past, two open-wheel racing leagues operated largely as competitors. In 2008, the Champ Car World Series (formerly CART) merged with the Indy Racing League (IRL) to form the IndyCar Series.
The resulting series features a variety of racetracks and the best drivers from both leagues.
“The competition level is definitely up,’’ Franchitti said. “You have the best teams from both series, the best drivers from both series. There’s no confusion anymore about who’s the best.’’
The leagues’ merger was yet another factor in Franchitti’s return to IndyCar. He didn’t want to miss an important step in his sport’s growth - and of course, more opportunities for continued success.
The 38-year-old Franchitti has won four events this season and holds a comfortable 62-point lead over Will Power in the point standings with six races to go, including tomorrow’s MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225.
It’s not an insurmountable lead, and Franchitti knows that. Last year, during the last quarter of the season - a stretch that featured four oval tracks - Franchitti overcame a 59-point deficit to Power en route to winning his second consecutive IndyCar Series Championship (third overall).
Toss in Franchitti’s 2007 championship and it starts to look a little bit like Jimmie Johnson’s success in the Sprint Cup Series. Johnson has won the past five Cup Series championships, an unprecedented feat in NASCAR.
Is it too soon to compare Franchitti’s success with Johnson’s? Perhaps.
“To win a championship in any form is very difficult,’’ Franchitti said. “What Jimmie’s done is incredible. To win one is tough. Two is more difficult, and it just increases. The fact that he’s done five in a row is very impressive.
“Right now, if you take away the year in NASCAR, we’ve done three in a row, and we’re trying for four.’’
The quest to No. 4 will continue tomorrow about 75 miles northwest of Boston.
It will be the IndyCar Series’ first race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway since 1998. Franchitti is fairly familiar with the Boston area. He spent parts of 2009 and 2010 in the Cambridge area with his wife, actress Ashley Judd, who was working on a graduate degree at Harvard University.
Franchitti said this week’s tight travel arrangements prohibited him from visiting his favorite spots. If he’d had time for a day trip, Franchitti said he’d love to go sailing.
But he won’t complain about being at NHMS instead.
“My preferred way of spending the weekend is at the racetrack,’’ Franchitti said, laughing. “So I’m kind of doing that.’’
During both practice sessions Thursday, Franchitti recorded the fastest laps. In the second session, he had the quickest lap of the day on the 1.058-mile oval with a 21.566-second lap (171.099 miles per hour).
For reference, Ryan Newman set the NASCAR track record last month with a lap of 28.165 seconds (135.232 m.p.h.).
“The difference for us compared to the Sprint Cup cars is we have the speed a little higher,’’ Franchitti said. “A lot of that has to do with the performance of the cars. They create different challenges. For us, with the amount of G-forces we’re pulling through the corners here . . . the physical aspect of driving an IndyCar is bloody intense. My hands are still sore from yesterday.’’
It wasn’t like that in NASCAR. Franchitti wouldn’t have it any other way.