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Franchitti's run atop IndyCar comes to an end

After three years on top, the end is here for Dario Franchitti.

His IndyCar reign officially ended last weekend at Sonoma. A third-place finish, his best result in seven races, mathematically eliminated him from championship contention.

Franchitti is now in the unfamiliar position of not being part of the title race as the IndyCar season comes to a close.

"I've been pretty spoiled the last four go's, I've been in it and ended up winning it," said Franchitti, who won his first title in 2007, spent 2008 in NASCAR and out of IndyCar, then returned in 2009 to win the last three championships.

"It feels a little odd to not be in the fight," he said. "But with the season we've had, we don't deserve to be in it."

It's been an off year for Franchitti and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team. It began with the season-opener at St. Petersburg, when he ran out of gas on the last lap, and the problems have followed him all year.

He had contact with Ryan Briscoe and mechanical problems at Long Beach, and was spun from behind on a restart while running second in Brazil. He qualified second at Texas but battled an "evil" car the entire race. A wreck at Milwaukee while leading and an engine failure on the warm-up lap at Iowa wiped out pole-winning runs, and he broke his wing by running into the back of James Hinchcliffe after starting second at Mid-Ohio.

With two races left, Franchitti has just one win, three podium finishes and, at ninth in the standings, is on track for his worst finish in IndyCar since he joined it full-time in 2004.

The lone bright spot? That one win came in the Indianapolis 500. It was Franchitti's third 500 victory, and he wouldn't trade it for another championship this season.

"We talk about the frustration of the season, but we won the Indy 500 again and came back from the back of the grid to do it, and I'm very, very proud of that," he said. "We got it done in Indy in pretty good style, and that takes some of the sting away. But not all of it, because you do get kind of greedy."

Franchitti is already thinking about next season. An abbreviated schedule this year means IndyCar concludes Sept. 15, giving Franchitti plenty of time to return to his native Scotland, spend time on his new sailing hobby or vacation at leisure.

But he said Wednesday he is not sure yet what he'll do during the offseason, as his free time will depend on his testing schedule and his fitness regimen.

That's all the indication anyone needs that the 39-year-old Franchitti isn't thinking about a life after racing just yet.

He understands that the combination of his age, his accomplishments, and the end of his title run raises questions about his future. How long does he want to do this? What might he do after IndyCar?

The answer, Franchitti said, is that he's not given it that much thought just yet.

He appreciates the opportunity he has with Ganassi, where he and teammate Scott Dixon win races and challenge for the title every year. They get along well, support each other on and off the track, and understand how rare that can be these days.

And, after struggling with underperforming teams early in his career, Franchitti appreciates being with a powerhouse organization.

"When you get a chance to drive for a team like I do, the Target team, you wait for that opportunity your whole life and you realize what you have and you don't take it for granted," he said. "It's something to enjoy and you don't want to give it up. I've been on the other side of it, and I realize exactly what I have with this team."

The final year of his current contract with Ganassi comes up in 2013. And he knows the clock is ticking on his career.

"Since I came back to IndyCar, that's been on my radar," Franchitti said. "And so I just enjoy every sort of year I get to do it. The fact that I've been successful has made it more enjoyable. But this is all I've known since I was 10 years old, and if you've got one eye on the exit, you are not really focusing on what you are doing. I can only go racing one way, 100 percent, and if I don't it doesn't work. We'll see what time brings."

His focus now is on the remaining two races, starting Sunday at Baltimore.

Franchitti is in position to help Dixon win the championship, even though he believes it's going to be tough to chase down points leader Will Power. Still, it's been Dixon who has helped Franchitti win the last two titles, and Franchitti wants to repay the favor if possible.

Dixon goes into Sunday's race ranked fourth in the standings, 54 points behind Power.

"It's been my goal since we were essentially out of it to help Dixie," Franchitti said. "He's not given up, and we know anything can happen. So we'll give it a go and see how it shakes out."