Published May 22, 2012
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – They've got nine championships between them and a combined five victories on the single most prolific day of racing of the year.
Dario Franchitti and Jimmie Johnson also share a friendship, even if it's from afar. They follow each other's races, text back and forth during the season and give the public a glimpse of their mutual admiration via Twitter.
"Well done (at)JimmieJohnson on the race last night, massively impressive," Franchitti tweeted following Johnson's victory in NASCAR's All-Star race on Saturday night.
They are, for the most part, the most decorated drivers over the last six years from their respective series.
Johnson's record run of five consecutive Sprint Cup titles was snapped last season, but Franchitti won his third-straight title to make it four championships in the last five IndyCar seasons.
"We keep threatening to drink some beers together to celebrate all these championships," Johnson said.
Both will be on the center stage Sunday for the biggest day of motorsports.
It begins early for Franchitti, who will watch on television as cousin Paul di Resta races in Formula One's Monaco Grand Prix. Franchitti's turn comes before lunch, when he will attempt to win his third Indianapolis 500.
Johnson will be watching from his motorhome at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he will try for his fourth Coca-Cola 600 victory Sunday night.
"I catch the start, it's on every television at Charlotte Motor Speedway," Johnson said. "Then you go do your hospitality and sponsor events, the driver meeting and usually as I get back, I'm lucky enough to catch the finish."
Franchitti knows no matter how his day goes in Indy, he'll be in front of the television before the night is over.
"Of course you go see what Jimmie and the boys are up to," he said.
The racing community can be small sometimes, even though it spans the globe. Drivers cross paths coming up through the ranks — Danica Patrick and Sam Hornish Jr. raced go-karts against each other as kids, both made it to IndyCar and both now race against each other full-time in NASCAR's Nationwide Series — and make friendships that carry far beyond the track.
Franchitti and Johnson, in a conference call with The Associated Press, recalled how their friendship began.
They met in 2005, when Johnson was teammates with Franchitti's little brother, Marino, in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race. Marino introduced Johnson to his brother, and before the event was over, a group of six or so drivers had spent an evening together at the local dog track.
"I got to know Marino first, and I felt like getting to know Marino, they can't be too different," Johnson said. "If I can connect with Marino, then I can connect with Dario. And I wanted to, I rooted for Dario before I knew him. I'd watched him for a lot of years, and I always appreciated his passion and the way he carried himself.
"Dario's always been that guy for me in open-wheel."
Despite different backgrounds — Johnson grew up in Southern California, Franchitti in Scotland — the two both ooze cool, and they have an appreciation for the finer things in life. Johnson married former model Chandra Janway, Franchitti is married to actress Ashley Judd. But in racing, both are lauded for their on-track accomplishments and off-track professionalism.
"I like the way Jimmie goes racing. I like the way he controls the car, and the ways he just has two sides," Franchitti said. "What he does on track is just phenomenal, but I also like the way he conducts himself off the track. We have similar attitude in that regard.
"And the fact that he won five championships in a row, I think it says a lot about him. To find the motivation to win two or three, but then to go and do five and still be hungry for more, it's unbelievable. He one of racing's good guys. One of the best on and off the track."
Franchitti got to see it firsthand in 2008, when he left IndyCar for NASCAR. He'd won his first Indy 500 and series championship the year before, and slid over to stock cars for a new challenge. It was a short-lived experiment for Franchitti, who broke his ankle in an accident at Talladega and ultimately fell victim to the economic downturn and sponsorship woes.
Franchitti ran just 10 Cup races — his best finish was 22nd — before team owner Chip Ganassi pulled the plug because of the sponsorship issues.
"I went in there with my eyes somewhat closed, I should have done my homework and driven the car before I went," Franchitti said. "With the Cup car, I struggled to get the hang of what the car needed to drive it. It was difficult to adapt to, and I think it would have taken a bit more time. I'd ask Jimmie what do you do here? And he'd tell me, and I'd think 'I can't do what you do.'"
Franchitti doesn't regret giving it a try, and points out he wouldn't have been able to return the next year to IndyCar with Ganassi, where he's won another Indy 500 and three consecutive championships, if he hadn't partnered with the team owner for the NASCAR ride.
"I was also able to learn some things about myself; all of a sudden I was running nowhere near what I was used to, and I had to dig deep for any sort of performance," he said. "I had to take some lumps along the way, it made me a bit stronger. And I realized I didn't get thrill from it that I get from driving IndyCar."
Johnson hasn't had a chance to try IndyCar, and a promise to his wife not to race anything that lacks a roof has stalled his dream of ever running the Indy 500. But he is hopeful that he can one day at least experience an Indycar in a closed-course test.
"There is a void there, and Dario has been helpful and encouraging for me to come give it a shot," Johnson said. "I have a lot of friends in the sport, they've always talked about it, and I would love that chance. I grew up wanting to be an IndyCar driver."
Should Johnson ever get into an IndyCar, Franchitti wants to be present "just to see Jimmie's face after the first few laps." Beyond that, he thinks both he and Johnson will be just fine with their current jobs.
"I am back in IndyCar doing what I should be doing and what I want to be doing," Franchitti said. "We're both doing exactly what we should be doing."
And in a sense, they get to live vicariously through each other. Johnson was criticized last year for saying IndyCar should abandon ovals following the death of Dan Wheldon in an accident at Las Vegas, but the many active drivers he knows understood his comments were out of concern for his friends.
So as he heads into this Sunday's race, he encourages his NASCAR fans to check out Franchitti and the Indy 500.
"For the longest time, as NASCAR was trying to outgrow IndyCar, or be bigger than them, there were some hardcore fans who took the stance, 'I'm just NASCAR, or I'm just IndyCar,'" Johnson said. "I don't subscribe to that, and I think that is fading. If motorsports is strong, it's because all of the series are strong. We're all race fans, and the reason I watch is because I like it."