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Franchitti's move back to IRL pays off

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The deal that led to Dario Franchitti winning the 2009 IndyCar Series championship was made like all good deals should — on a cocktail napkin. Well, actually, in the words of Target Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull, "less than an eight by 10 (inch) piece of paper," but let's stick with the napkin bit. The story behind the deal should be as good as the deal itself, right? "Those are the best deals you make in racing," Hull said Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway about how he and team owner Chip Ganassi got Franchitti to return to open-wheel racing. "And it certainly turned out to be that deal." Boy, did it ever.
The payoff came as Franchitti outlasted Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon on fuel in the closing stages of the Firestone Indy 300 to win the race and bag his second IndyCar Series championship by 11 points over Dixon. All day long, Briscoe and Dixon went about racing each other for the lead in an attempt to earn the two bonus points for leading the most laps. But when Franchitti and his team realized that he couldn't quite match the pace, they resorted to simple strategy. And just like the decision to bring Franchitti back to IndyCars, it was the right call at the right time. "It takes quite a driver to have the ability to maintain his composure during a race like today and how the race played out," said Ganassi. "That's strictly a level of maturity and a level of confidence in yourself and being a champion before and knowing what it takes to be a champion. That's how you win races like he did today." Rewind to last year. Franchitti was in the midst of his first NASCAR Sprint Cup season. It had been a tough rookie campaign filled with low finishes and marred by an absence of five races thanks to a broken ankle he sustained in a Nationwide Series crash at Talladega Superspeedway. In July, his racing life got worse as Ganassi had to shut down his Cup team due to sponsorship problems. And as he pondered his next move on Labor Day weekend, the man that had been a champion in the IRL just one year before was in Detroit watching his younger brother Marino race in an American Le Mans Series event. "I wondered what was going to happen," Franchitti remembered. "I had some offers to do some sports car stuff. From about May onwards, I had kind of been getting this hankering on for (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). When I had my broken ankle I kind of worked around it, and it got me thinking about coming back. I'm the kind of person when I do something, I immerse myself in it and I've immersed myself in NASCAR. "So Chip and I had been talking about various options for this year. I went to Detroit to watch my brother race and to talk with Chip about my options." Before the Detroit weekend, the team learned that Dan Wheldon would not return to the team in 2009. In the wake of that decision, Ganassi and Hull decided to heed the advice of a mentor, veteran open-wheel team owner Morris Nunn. "No matter what, you've always got to take the best guy that's available," Ganassi said. "Because if you do it for some other reason, you're going to get in trouble eventually. That's what we did." With that in mind, Hull zeroed in on Franchitti when the Scotsman wondered how he'd compete with Dixon as a teammate. "When Dario came to watch Marino drive at Detroit, he and I were sitting down on the back step of the trailer after the first practice session, and he said, 'Man, if I had to drive against the Dixon I see today versus the Dixon that I drove against (in 2007), I'd have my hands full. I'd really like to be his teammate,'" Hull remembered. "And I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Okay, what about that NASCAR thing?' And he said, 'Well, if I could be on a proper IndyCar team, that would be the best place in the world for me to drive.' And he said, 'But there isn't a drive available.' I said, 'Oh, okay.' So I called Chip after the conversation, and Chip said, 'Invite him to dinner tonight and let's make a deal tonight.'" "So on a cocktail napkin we made a deal ... We gave him two hours to sign at the end of the cocktail napkin." And with that, a title contender had instantly re-emerged in the open-wheel world. But with Dixon just as good as he's ever been, as well as the rise of Briscoe with Team Penske, Franchitti knew he would have his work cut out for him against stiff competition. But it was that very challenge, as well as the prospect of claiming a title in a fully unified series, that beckoned him to return. "(Chip) sat me down and grilled me pretty hard in Detroit: Why do I want to come back to IndyCar? Was I up for the challenge and ready to do it again and give 100 percent?" said Franchitti. "I'm just glad they invited me back to come and play. "I really enjoyed it. I wanted to be part of the unified series, the places we get to race at, and the people I get to race against and the cars I get to drive. It's pretty cool." The 2009 championship featured three deserving combatants that swapped the points lead at almost every event. Each one had moments where they seem primed to pull away, but it never happened. In the end, it was Franchitti, the man that had not won on a 1.5-mile oval all season prior to Homestead, that came away with the crown. It's the great payoff of a very good deal that brought Franchitti back where he belonged. "I'm absolutely where I should be," he declared. "I should be in IndyCars. That is what I grew up to do, race in the IndyCar Series. I wouldn't change my decision I made."
Tagged: Dario Franchitti

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