Posted: Sunday October 3, 2010 2:04AM ; Updated: Sunday October 3, 2010 6:10PM
Bruce Martin
Bruce Martin>INSIDE RACING

Champion Franchitti shows his cool

Story Highlights

Nearing a third IndyCar title, Dario Franchitti took a moment to collect himself

By placing eighth, he claimed his third title in the last three seasons he competed

It was his calmness and coolness under fire that allowed him to claim his title

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Dario Franchitti (left) finished eighth behind winner Scott Dixon to edge Will Power by five points and become the first IndyCar driver to repeat as series champion since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 and 2002.
Nick Laham/Getty Images

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Prior to climbing into his race car before Saturday night's final IZOD IndyCar Series race of the season, Dario Franchitti was the coolest guy on pit lane. With several hundred people milling around the 27 cars about to take the green flag for the Cafes Do Brasil Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Franchitti was oblivious to the tumult and chaos that surrounded him.

When he got to his race car, he walked over to his red-and-white No. 10 Team Target IndyCar, sat down on pit lane and leaned back on the left-front wheel of his race car. There, he closed his eyes, collected his thoughts and was able to see solace before the battle that would determine the series title. After a few minutes of meditation, the Scotsman rose up and, with a look of focused determination, put on his balaclava and racing helmet before strapping himself into the pole-sitting car.

By contrast, Team Penske driver Will Power arrived in Miami earlier this week tense and nervous. While Franchitti has been involved in four previous championship races in his career, including end-of-the-season battles in CART in 1999 and 2002 and IndyCar titles in 2007 and 2009, this was Power's first major series championship battle. Franchitti is a savvy veteran, but Power remains the shy, rough-around-the-edges, raw talent from Australia who drives with fearless abandon.

That attitude served Power well on the street and road course circuits this season, when he piled up a season-high five victories. But when it came to the ovals, Franchitti had the obvious advantage, having won his second Indianapolis 500 on May 30 as well as at Chicagoland Speedway on August 28. He also drove to victory at Mid-Ohio in August. But when Power won on the Infineon Raceway road course August 22, he had a 59-point lead over Franchitti with four races left in the season.

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Dario Franchitti found a place to collect his thoughts prior to Saturday night's race.
Bruce Martin/SI

By the time they arrived at Homestead on Saturday night, Power's lead was cut to 11. Franchitti earned one point for claiming the pole on Friday evening and if he led the most laps in the race, Power would have to find a way to finish ahead of his championship rival on the race track.

Once the green flag dropped, it was obvious Franchitti was driving the faster of the two cars. He led the race six times for 128 laps to clinch the two extra bonus points for most laps led in the race. Power had dropped as low as 10th place by lap 25, but was running fourth when his championship run came to a sudden stop. That is when Power smacked the backstretch wall on lap 135, damaging the right-rear suspension. His Team Penske crew was able to replace the damaged suspension in just 5:06 but, when he returned to the track five laps down, it was obvious his car was done for the night.

So Power pulled into the pits, the car went behind the wall and his night was over with a 25th-place finish. But Franchitti still had to finish 10th or better in order to clinch the championship. Franchitti would fall back in the field, playing it cautiously and even dropping into tenth. That is when he narrowly averted disaster at the hands of Milka Duno -- who else? -- when she smacked the outside wall and missed Franchitti's car by a few feet.

If that was Franchitti's "Oh, Shoot!" moment, he would quickly recover and go on to finish eighth to secure his third IndyCar Series championship in the last three seasons he has competed in the series. The only year missing is 2008, when Franchitti attempted to compete in NASCAR.

It was Franchitti's calmness and coolness under fire that allowed him to claim his title. And, by doing it in the same season he won his second Indianapolis 500, Franchitti became one of five drivers to win multiple Indy 500s and multiple series championships in the same season more than once in their careers.

Louis Meyer won the Indianapolis 500 and the national championship in 1928 and 1933. Wilbur Shaw did it in 1937 and 1939. Rodger Ward won Indy and the national title in 1959 and 1962 and A.J. Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 and the championship in 1961, '64 and '67. Franchitti won both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar title in 2007 and 2010.

That puts Franchitti in some exclusive company of legends but, when asked if he considers himself in that category, the three-time champion became humble.

"I'm very proud of those achievements but Friday morning I took a picture with A.J. Foyt and the A.J. Foyt trophy. "I said, 'Oh, my God, it's A.J. Foyt,' " Franchitti said as he posed next to the Indy racing legend. "We were sitting, talking away like old buddies. I'm thinking, `It's A.J. Foyt.' Then Mario Andretti was around and I know him from my years driving with Mike (Michael Andretti). Mario is a buddy of mine. But I'm thinking it's A.J., Mario, Rick Mears -- these guys are legends of the sport. And these guys are special."

And so is Franchitti, who didn't win his first series championship until he was 34 in 2007. Now, three years later, he is a three-time title winner at 37 and is certainly not showing any signs of slowing down.

Franchitti is simply getting better with age.

"You would have to say that," said Scott Dixon, Franchitti's friend, teammate and Saturday's racewinner . "I think he has definitely come on. They say that kind of about tri-athletes, your mid 30s are kind of your peak. He's getting close to 40. So he's stretching the window.

"I think the determining factor for a lot of people when they get to that age, if they have the will to do it, and you know whether they want to get up and train and do those things and make it worthwhile. And Dario, still you can see the fire. And you can see that he's an extremely competitive person. Right now you'd have to say that he's at his peak."

And when Franchitti peaks; he wins. He never got rattled in IndyCar's championship chase and, while Power became more nervous as his once-mighty points lead shrank, Franchitti was enjoying the battle.

And he proved than when it comes to championships, "Good things come in three's."

"It's very difficult to kind of compare the three," Franchitti said. "That's like asking to compare the two Indianapolis 500 wins. I do believe the competition level in the series is going up. For whatever reason, we at Team Target both Scott and myself maybe didn't have the speed advantage we had last year. In some cases we have to work harder to finish in the top five at races.

"So to come away with a championship after a season like that is very satisfying. And we look back to Iowa and think to that gear box, that took a lot of points away, and from then on it was a real struggle. But nobody on the Target team gave up. We did our best every single week. We find ourselves here again tonight. It was pretty cool. Great to be out there enjoying that feeling and that moment with my family, my friends, my teammates, it doesn't get any better than that."

By looking at the cumulative of the success he has enjoyed since 2007, Franchitti admits he is amazed.

"Good haul, isn't it?" he said. "I look back to the start of 2007, I hadn't won a championship. I won a lot of races but not a championship or Indy 500. Now we find ourselves with two 500s and three championships.

"I'm just going to enjoy it. I think I'm just going to let it sink in, enjoy it. And if you ask me that question maybe starting next year I'll give you a better answer. But I'm very proud of the achievement."

Even when he was trailing Power in the points standings, Franchitti remained confident he could contend for the championship.

"At no point did I freak out," Franchitti said. "I was very aware that I might not win the championship. But there was no point in freaking out about that. If it was the situation we found ourselves in. That was it. I just looked at it as an obstacle and see if we could catch Will again. If we couldn't, he would win the championship. But we gave it our best effort. And we saw the results."

Conversely, the "Power Failure" has put the Team Penske driver in a state of despair. He admits it will take some time to get over his disappointment and heartbreak but vows he will be a much better driver on the oval tracks next season when he returns to Team Penske.

"There are a couple of scenarios that could have worked out in our favor but Chicagoland definitely was something that was very strong and we running at the front all day," Power recalled. Obviously it didn't end exactly right, but we had an equipment failure. What can you do?

"I think the confidence on the ovals; I've really learned an unbelievable amount this year. And I knew going into this year that was going to be the weak point. No question. But now I feel I'm on par with the other guys. Absolutely. And I know next year it will be a tough fight."

Considering the position Power was in one year ago, when he was recovering from a broken lower back from a crash at Infineon Raceway in August 2009, he has had a spectacular comeback season. He realized that even as he coped with the disappointment of losing the championship.

"Last year, I was watching this race in a back brace, so, yeah, it's been the best year of my career in motorsports," Power said. "Obviously I'm very disappointed at the outcome. But I had come to the realization at, what lap it was, 120 or something, that Dario had led the most laps. We didn't really have the car to win. I predicted at the beginning of the season, it was the guy and team who made the least amount of mistakes that would win the championship. But I think next year I'll come back very strong."

As in most championship battles, a driver has to understand what it is like to lose a title before he is capable of winning one. That happened to Franchitti in 1999, when he ended the season tied with Juan Pablo Montoya for the CART championship only to lose it on the tie-breaker of most victories. Montoya had seven wins to Franchitti's three.

Power is a very smart race driver in addition to his extreme talent. Perhaps the Australian can use the driver from Scotland as a model of what it takes to win a championship, which is Franchitti's coolness under fire.

He certainly displayed that in his brief moment of solitude before the start of the race.

 
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