Franchitti chasing another IndyCar title

(Eds: Updates with AP Photos.)By JOHN KEKISAP Sports Writer

True to his nature, Dario Franchitti shrugged at the mention of his amazing success.

”I’m proud of the championships I’ve won,” he said. ”I’m trying very hard to get another one, but it’s going to be tough.”

If only he hadn’t made that foray into NASCAR, Franchitti might be in the same territory as five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

As the IndyCar Series moves into the final five races of its season, Franchitti leads the standings again and is positioned to capture his third straight title and fourth in five years. The only blip in his impressive run came in 2008, when he left open-wheel racing to compete in NASCAR, leaving Scott Dixon to take the IndyCar title.

Franchitti is coming off a 20th-place finish at New Hampshire that he is eager to put in his rearview mirror. He started on the pole Aug. 14 and led 115 of the first 119 laps before a crash on a restart ended his day.

”You saw it last week. You’ve got to be good every week,” he said.

Despite the setback, Franchitti holds a 47-point lead over Will Power of Team Penske heading into the road course at Sonoma this weekend.

The two have been down this road before, and not so long ago.

Franchitti beat Power by just five points to win the series title last year. A gearbox problem at Iowa in midseason cost Franchitti a boatload of points and made the championship race an uphill climb for the rest of the season.

Franchitti trailed Power by 59 points with four races to go, whittled it to 12 entering the season finale at Homestead, then won the pole, led the most laps and took home the title when Power faded to eighth in the race.

”It’s definitely possible for him (Power) and Scott (Dixon) to come back,” Franchitti said. ”I think we’ve proved the past couple of years that until you’re mathematically out of these things, there’s always a chance.”

Dixon, Franchitti’s teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, is third in the standings, 26 points behind Power.

”It’s a little bit different this year,” Power said. ”Last year at Sonoma, I had a lead of 50-something points with four to go whereas this year I’m chasing hard, so there’s a little bit of a different approach. I’m going to be aggressive at times.”

Franchitti has soared since his breakthrough year in 2007. After 12 seasons of trying, he won four races, including the Indy 500, and finally captured his first IndyCar title at age 34 while driving for Andretti Green Racing. He now has 30 career wins in open wheel, one behind Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais for seventh place all-time.

Still, winning that title wasn’t easy. Franchitti finished only 13 points ahead of Dixon, who ran out of fuel on the last lap of the season – he was about a pint short – to give his future teammate the win and the championship.

With Franchitti jumping to NASCAR for a new challenge, Dixon won the IndyCar title three years ago.

Since then, everybody’s been chasing the flying Scotsman.

In 2009, Franchitti, Dixon and Ryan Briscoe swapped the top spot in the standings a record 15 times in 17 races and the title wasn’t decided until the final laps in the season finale at Homestead.

Franchitti entered that race five points behind Dixon and three ahead of Briscoe and won it on fuel mileage when his rivals had to pit late. He beat Dixon by 11 points for his second championship.

”He certainly at times has very good luck on his side, but he doesn’t make mistakes,” Power said. ”The only way you can beat him is if something happens to him on the track – another competitor hits him – or we can beat him outright with speed. He’s a tough customer.”

And about as cool and calm as a racer can be. The unflappable Franchitti won his second Indy 500 and third title last year.

”He’s got a very strong team,” Power said. ”It’s the team and driver who put the weekend together.”

Power excels on road courses, but will need a strong effort on the twisting circuit at Sonoma to gain ground.

Franchitti has made five career starts at Infineon Raceway and has one win with an average finish of 3.4, best of any driver with more than one start at the track. He’s also completed every lap in his five starts (390 of 390) and has led 137 laps, most of any driver.

Oh, and two years ago he led every lap at Infineon, the first time a driver had done that in the series since Dixon led all 206 laps of a rain-shortened event at Richmond in 2003.

Power is the defending champion at Infineon and the track has been both kind and cruel to him. His 2009 season ended in a dramatic crash in practice, then a year ago he became the series’ road course champion with his victory in the Napa Valley wine country. In the last 10 IndyCar races run on street circuits, Power has earned six wins among his eight podium finishes.

Four drivers have won at Sonoma and finished second in the final standings since 2005, including Power last year. Franchitti is the only driver to win at Sonoma and capture the series title.

Power aims to make it a twosome.

”Basically, I have to stay ahead of Dario every time,” said Power, who paced the IndyCar Series in 2010 with five wins and eight pole positions in his first full year driving for Penske. ”I feel as though if we can put it together we can most definitely do it. It only takes him to have one bad day and us to have a win and we’ll be right on him.”