INDIANAPOLIS – Dario Franchitti needed two Indianapolis 500 victories to feel like a defending champion.
Now he’s getting used to it.
Four years after winning a rain-shortened race, the Scotsman has returned to the venue of his two biggest wins with an opportunity to – finally – become a repeat winner. He never got that chance in 2008, leaving the comfort of IndyCars for the world of stock cars.
“It’s nice to talk about last year, but my job is to win this one,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve got a shot, and I think I’ve got a good one.”
Franchitti already has a sense of what this month will entail.
In March, basketball Hall of Famer Larry Bird presented Franchitti with his Indy 500 champion’s ring. A week later, he returned to Indianapolis in hopes of knocking out some of the numerous interview requests he expects to fill in the next two weeks.
He’s been asked to do more sponsor appearances, will participate in a sold-out fundraiser tonight to benefit Riley Children’s Hospital of Indianapolis, and three days later will celebrate his 38th birthday.
Yes, it’s been a busy month, and if the rain actually stops this week, Franchitti will have to cram in all of his on-the-track work before qualifying starts next weekend. In Saturday’s abbreviated practice, he was fourth on the speed chart with a best lap of 224.107 mph.
More showers washed out the 6-hour session scheduled for Sunday before any cars could make it onto the track, and rain is sprinkled into the forecast for most of this week, too.
Franchitti could have sampled the champion’s treatment himself after winning the 500 in 2007. But after clinching the first of his three IndyCar points titles, he left Michael Andretti’s IndyCar team for Ganassi’s Sprint Cup team.
It was a miserable experience. Franchitti failed to finish higher than 17th in his three warmup races to close the 2007 season, then broke his left ankle in a crash in 2008 at Talledega.
“It wasn’t so much about coming back and defending the title as it was driving in the Indy 500, and I missed that,” Franchitti said.
Since returning in 2009, Franchitti has been almost untouchable. He qualified third for the 2009 Indy 500, finished seventh and eventually won his second points title. Last year, he won the race and clinched a third points championship in the season-finale at Homestead.
Now he’s on the cusp of making history. Only five Indy 500 drivers have won back-to-back titles — Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich, Al Unser and Helio Castroneves, who won in 2001 and 2002. And only one foreign-born driver, Castroneves of Brazil, has won three titles.