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With Long Beach win, Franchitti proves he's back

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After Dario Franchitti claimed his long-awaited first victory at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, he was doing the standard Victory Lane interview for the cameras when team owner Chip Ganassi came up and embraced him. "Sweet," he exclaimed to his driver. "That exorcised a lot of demons." Franchitti wouldn't say what the demons were. But he had an idea. "...We committed to go over to NASCAR together, and we couldn't find a sponsor," the 2007 Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champion said of his ill-fated trip to the stock car world. "And for both of us that was very tough to swallow, because we're used to such success.

Picture perfect

Dario and Ashley Looking for photos of Mr. and Mrs. Ashley Judd ... Ahem, Dario Franchitti? Look right here.
"And Chip lost an awful lot of money last year. And I lost my driving. Bunch of people lost their job. So I don't think it was easy on anybody. So I think that's what my take on it is. Do the demons represent the failed NASCAR experiment? Or perhaps they symbolize those two second-place finishes he took at Long Beach in 1998 and 1999 behind Ganassi drivers Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya. Either way, the demons are gone now. Now, Franchitti's career, plus his hopes for a second Indy 500 win, are once again alive and well. Sunday's victory would seem to be a fitting ending to Franchitti's saga that saw him win the '07 IndyCar crown for Andretti Green Racing only to go race for rival Ganassi's stock car operation, and then return to open-wheel for TCGR. But as big as winning at Long Beach is, let's be honest. It would be dwarfed if he were able to put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy another time. Right now, he's one of the major favorites at the Brickyard. But this weekend, the IndyCar Series is heading to Kansas Speedway for their first oval of the 2009 season and the only oval test before the month of May.
For teams like Dale Coyne Racing (which is currently tops in the standings amongst former Champ Car teams with driver Justin Wilson in sixth) and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing (Graham Rahal, 9th; Robert Doornbos, 11th), Kansas will tell them just how much they have truly improved over the offseason after kicking off the season with two street races. For teams like Vision Racing (Ryan Hunter-Reay, 5th; Ed Carpenter, 21st) and Panther Racing (Dan Wheldon, 7th), it's their chance to show their formidable speedway acumen. However, for the Big Three in the sport — Ganassi, Andretti Green and Penske Racing — Kansas stands as a race where they must maintain the status quo and build momentum for chasing the bigger prize on the horizon. While Wheldon has won the last two events in the Sunflower State, he won them with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. In 2007, he torched the field by leading 177 of the 200 laps. Last year, he won from the outside of the front row. In short, Ganassi owns Kansas. If Franchitti can take advantage of that, he won't just be one of the favorites at the Indy 500. He'll be the favorite. As for the IndyCar championship, however, that may be a trickier proposition. If the new teams and drivers that have been up front at St. Pete and Long Beach stay there at Kansas, Indy and beyond, Franchitti may find some unfamiliar company at the front besides his main rivals from Penske and Andretti Green. "I think if we've seen one thing from those first two races like you said, it's been jumbled up, the order," Franchitti said about the possibility of new competition. "And you've seen some of the young guys coming in and really putting pressure on it. "...The competition level is just ratcheted up again this year. You know, obviously, historically on the ovals, the Target cars, the AGR cars and Penske cars have been strong. But other people are figuring it out." That's why Kansas will be important for all involved. But even though he'll head there with a full head of steam, he's not going to be boastful about his chances. Much like NASCAR, it simply isn't his style. "...I'm not a person to go in there in my mind and say I'm going to kick everybody's ass," he said. "That's not the way I do it. I go in there and do my best. And I don't try to put any expectations on it, because that's when you set yourself up for a fall. "You just go in and do your best. And that's the way I've always gone about it, really." The word is out. The demons are gone. Dario Franchitti is back where he belongs. Bet against him at your peril.
Tagged: Dario Franchitti

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