When Dario Franchitti left the IndyCar series two years ago, he went out on top. When he came back for the 2009 season, he did so humbled, all but returning with his helmet in hand. The Scotsman won the 2007 championship, then bolted for the greener pastures of NASCAR. But a host of factors—a sour economy that drove sponsors away, a broken ankle and a steep learning curve—conspired to end his stock car career after one miserable half-season in which he never finished better than 22nd in 10 starts and saw his team shuttered in July.
Franchitti referred to his NASCAR foray as "a bit of a vacation," but his fellow drivers weren't commenting on how well-rested and tan he looked when he came back from the South. "What happened to Dario last year was a good kick up the ass," said teammate Scott Dixon. "He came back with sheer motivation. It puts his mind into going for it again."
And he did. After signing an agreement (on a napkin in a Detroit restaurant) to drive for Chip Ganassi's IndyCar team, Franchitti stayed near the top of the tight standings all year. The season boiled down to a shootout last Saturday night in Miami among Franchitti, defending champ Dixon and Ryan Briscoe. Franchitti sat on the pole, but as the race wore on, it became clear he had the third-best car, behind the other two contenders'. So Franchitti showed his wily side: He laid back and let Dixon and Briscoe duke it out—and burn precious fuel. It was a gamble, one that would have backfired had there been a late caution. But the yellow flag never came out, and when Dixon and Briscoe finally had to pit seven laps from home, Franchitti, who was trailing by 20 seconds, cruised to the checkered flag and the $1 million that came with his second series title. And this time he's going to defend it. "I'm absolutely where I should be," Franchitti said. "That is what I grew up to do, race in the IndyCar Series."