Published May 16, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS – Dario Franchitti just wins IndyCar championships.
At least that's been the case since he returned from NASCAR in 2009.
But the combination of Honda's new engine, Roger Penske's dominance and some bad luck has Franchitti looking like anything but a champ in 2012. He's 12th in the standings, trailing leader Will Power by 100 points after four races, and he will need a drastic turnaround just to get back in the title hunt.
The good news is Franchitti will be spending the next 11 days working at his favorite track, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with a more confident outlook.
"In Brazil, I think we really turned the corner," the three-time defending points champ said during this week's practice. "We were 1/100th of a second off the pole, we definitely felt good with the race performance in Brazil and how the car drove. But all that has no bearing on what happens in Indy."
Titles usually do.
Five of the last seven Indy winners went on to win the season championship and since 2004 all but one IndyCar champ was also in the top 10 at Indy. Franchitti is the exception to both rules, finishing 12th last season at the 500 and seventh in 2009 before capturing the points title each time.
And fortunately for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, few drivers know how to get around the Brickyard better than Franchitti.
He's had a front-row spot in three of his last four Indy starts, and from 2005 until last year, Franchitti hadn't finished worse than seventh on the 2.5-mile oval.
There is plenty riding on this weekend's qualifying and the May 27 race, too.
A win would make the Scotsman only the second three-time Indy winner from outside the U.S., joining Brazil's Helio Castroneves. A win also would put Franchitti in a tie with Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais for No. 7 on IndyCar's career victory list with 31, the most of any active drivers, and, of course it would give his championship hopes a real boost, too.
By winning a fourth straight crown, Franchitti would become only the second IndyCar driver in history to win five overall titles — breaking a tie with Mario Andretti and Bourdais. Only A.J. Foyt (seven) has won more.
"I don't think much in those terms," Franchitti said. "I think about what we have to do to win this race. I don't think of any us look at in those terms. You just want to put yourself in the best position in qualifying and then the best position we can in the race."
Honda is giving him some help.
Last Friday, the only IndyCar manufacturer to use a single turbocharged engine this season won its case to add a new compressor cover — a move series officials say will create a more level playing field with what has been a Chevrolet dominated season.
The cover was added at Brazil, where Franchitti had his season-best showing, and on Indy's long, flat straightaways, the new design could really make a difference.
"There's no question it made them more competitive at Brazil, where they went from being pretty close to us to having a slight advantage," Power said. "It's a much bigger advantage on an oval than a road course because you run wide-open for longer, so the horsepower really makes a difference."
Franchitti remains baffled by how the Chevys managed to get two more laps per fuel load in Brazil than he could — a touchy subject for a team that gambled on opposite fuel strategies in last year's 500 and wound up losing both. Franchitti dropped from second to 12th on the final four laps, partly because of worn tires, while teammate Scott Dixon made a late pit stop to get extra fuel and wound up fifth.
This season, Dixon, the 2008 Indy winner and a two-time IndyCar champ, is sixth overall in the points and second among all Honda drivers behind only Simon Pagenaud.
Publicly, Franchitti has been his usually unflappable self. At team headquarters, though, team managing director Mike Hull is preaching patience.
"What you do is instill on everybody in Dario's program that everyone is working on this together and the harder we work, the better it's going to be," Hull said.
The first test will come Saturday at pole qualifying.
Ganassi's cars haven't exactly been at the top of the speed chart this week. Dixon's top practice speed came Monday, 221.499 mph, while Franchitti had his fastest lap of the week Wednesday at 221.623.
Things are moving in the right direction as Franchitti jumped from 12th on this week's speed chart to eighth.
It's by design.
Hull acknowledges Ganassi's cars have not been working in qualifying trim and likely won't until Friday when all drivers are given a horsepower boost that is to increase speeds by 4-5 mph.
Until then, Franchitti will just keep grinding away.
"It's been a great position for this team to win the last four championships, but you can't be complacent about it," Franchitti said. "You have to work at it. We try and do the best we can every week, the guys on the team are always working hard at it. It was a slow start, but it is what it is."