JOHNSON, FRANCHITTI NOW FANS OF EACH OTHER
By Bruce Martin, SI.com
LAS VEGAS -- Jimmie Johnson, who is attempting to win his sixth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title, and Dario Franchitti, who is going for his fourth straight IZOD IndyCar Series championship in as many attempts, have much more in common than their outstanding racing ability and impressive championship streaks.
They form a mutual admiration society when it comes to each other's talents. Franchitti will race for the IndyCar championship (technically it would be a third straight championship given his foray into NASCAR in 2007) on Sunday in Las Vegas, and nobody will pulling harder for him than Johnson.
"We've been great friends over the years," Johnson said of Franchitti. "I respect who he is outside of the race car. He is a great man and then he is one hell of a race car driver as well. To see what he has done throughout his career, the success he has had, the streak he is trying to keep alive ... we joke with one another that we have to keep the streak alive, you know, both of us do."
Just as Johnson epitomizes championship success at NASCAR's highest level, Franchitti exemplifies those same qualities in IndyCar.
"I'm just proud of him in many ways," Johnson continued. "Certainly I wish the best for him. I hope to someday race against him again. We always joke around about how I need to get in an IndyCar ... Maybe someday we can race in the Rolex 24 [at Daytona] or something ... and have some fun. I'm just very proud of what he's accomplished. He has a big fan right here in myself."
There was a time when these two drivers competed against each other and Johnson had the definitive edge. It was in late 2007 that Franchitti left IndyCar as the champion. The Scotsman was looking for a new challenge. After all, he had won the biggest race in the world -- the Indianapolis 500 -- and the series championship in the same season in 2007. Franchitti thought it was time to make the jump from cars without fenders to the bigger, bulkier stock cars, so he signed a deal with team owner Chip Ganassi.
"I was very happy with the situation I was in -- we were winning races and [had] just won the championship," Franchitti told SI.com Monday from the home he shares with his wife, actress Ashley Judd, in rural Tennessee. "When I left ... people didn't believe me. They are always looking for the darker side of the story but I was very happy with Andretti Green Racing as it was at the time. I was very happy in IndyCar. I just wanted a new challenge."
NASCAR, however, proved to be a bigger challenge than he could conquer, especially after he suffered a broken ankle in a crash in a Nationwide race at Talladega in April 2008.
"Learning the car was challenging and learning the style of racing was challenging," Franchitti recalled. "It was a completely different style of racing and ... from my first race in an open-wheel car to the last race I did in an IndyCar, I was always building up information about the same kind of stuff with tires and aerodynamics. Then when I get in the stock car all of that is thrown out the window and I had to get comfortable with that. ... I learned a certain amount of mental fortitude that season."
Ganassi would eventually shut down Franchitti's No. 40 car when a full-time sponsor couldn't be secured.
"I went from the high of winning the Indianapolis 500 to a year later not having a sponsor and being out of a job."
In head-to-head competition it is unfair to judge Franchitti against Johnson in 2008. Franchitti made 10 Cup starts and had two DNQs. His best start was seventh at New Hampshire and his best finish was 22nd at Martinsville. He had nine finishes worse than 32nd. In those same 10 races, Johnson had six top-10 finishes, three top-fives and a victory at Phoenix.
Consider that Franchitti was a NASCAR rookie trying to make the jump from IndyCar without any prior stock car racing experience and Johnson was a proven veteran who would go on to win his third straight Cup title in 2008. Johnson was also driving for the top crew chief in the series (Chad Knaus) and for the top team in NASCAR (Hendrick Motorsports). Franchitti was driving for a Ganassi team that was in the midst of a slump and was trying to hit its stride.
They may have competed in the same races, but they were not really racing each other.
"When I saw Jimmie in the Cup car he was generally lapping me," Franchitti recalled. "We did have a really good race at Watkins Glen in the Nationwide car. I qualified on the pole and Jimmie qualified third or fourth. ... When I managed to pull away from him there I knew I was getting away from the best in the business. I took a lot of satisfaction out of that. The fact I stayed ahead of him for a while was a pretty cool experience. He has been on top for a long time. The longer you are up there the harder it gets.
Despite the fact that these two drivers were racing at opposite ends of the NASCAR field, they were able to form a bond and a friendship with the roots beginning a few years earlier at the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.
"Jimmie and [my] little brother Marino became friends and ... [then] we started having dinner and hanging out in the bus lot at the 24 Hours," Franchitti said. "By the time I got to NASCAR I knew Jimmie and we hung out as much as time would allow when we were both doing NASCAR. He's just a great guy regardless of what he does on or off the track. He is one of the funniest guys to hang out with and we became pretty good friends.
"Jimmie is a funny, funny person. He has that great sense of humor but to me he takes care of business, first and foremost. He is out there to win races. ... But you can see sometimes that humor is just bubbling onto the surface and when you get him away from the track it's a good time."
If Franchitti had persevered and remained in NASCAR, it's uncertain if his career would have improved or floundered. He had better success in the Nationwide Series than in Cup, and in his last race in stock cars he started second and led 87 laps at Bristol.
"The big stumbling block to me was I didn't enjoy driving the [stock] car anywhere near as much as I enjoyed driving the IndyCar," Franchitti admitted. "When I realized that, I knew I had to go back to driving the IndyCar if I could."
In 2009, Franchitti moved from Ganassi's NASCAR program to the No. 10 Target IndyCar, replacing Dan Wheldon. Since that time, he has won 12 races in 51 attempts and back-to-back championships.
"I think my game was pretty good when I left [in 2007]," Franchitti said. "I won the last race that I did. I won the championship, a bunch of races and the Indy 500 that year. What surprised me was I was able to return at that level. It is always difficult to come back and the fact I was able to come back, win and be competitive straight away -- that was a very nice surprise. I definitely learned some stuff in NASCAR just by getting out of my comfort zone. You can always learn by driving different cars."
In many ways, Franchitti has been just as unstoppable at winning titles in IndyCar as Johnson has been in NASCAR. There are many similarities Franchitti and Johnson share. Both are extremely likable personalities but are fierce competitors on the racetrack. For anyone who doesn't believe that, ask Power in IndyCar about Franchitti and Kurt Busch in NASCAR about Johnson.
They know how to race smooth and hard but also have an unbelievable feel for their race cars and can translate that to the team's engineers.
"[In any car] you have to be able to drive and think. Jimmie does that very well," Franchitti said. "He doesn't make many mistakes. The competitive drive [he has] ... transfers to any car.
By competing in both types of race cars Franchitti has the edge on understanding what it takes to be successful in his form of racing.
"One thing I've learned is it takes a lot of skill to drive either an IndyCar or a Cup car or any racing car quick," Franchitti said. "Jimmie and I were talking about New Hampshire after I qualified on the pole there ... He asked me how quick we were running and I told him I was wide open the whole way around averaging 170 miles per hour on a one-mile oval and it shocked him. It absolutely shocked him. But when you watch what those guys do and what Jimmie does around those tracks they are a lot slower but they are at the limit of the car's performance and they are sliding the cars around.
"Each one of them has their own difficulties."
Given the difficulties he faced in NASCAR, Franchitti doesn't think Johnson gets enough credit.
"I don't think he gets the recognition he deserves. ... It's a shame. He is a very special driver."
Both have been dominant when it comes to winning championships, but is it really good for each series for the same driver to win the championship every year? Johnson's spectacular run has been criticized by some NASCAR fans as being "boring."
But can't the same be said for Franchitti winning the IndyCar title every year?
"I don't know the answer to that," Franchitti admitted. "There does come a certain backlash at some point with fans saying 'Anybody but Jimmie.' The fans say the same about me. People like to root for the underdog ... But my job is to be successful and to win everything I can.
"That's what I keep doing."
And that has earned the admiration of another master at winning championships in Johnson.