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Back where he belongs, veteran driver Dario Franchitti hopes to recapture glory in the Indianapolis 500

“I think I’m where I’m supposed to be,” says IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti, who returned after spending last season trying to make his mark in NASCAR. “I’m doing what I should be doing.”

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“I think I’m where I’m supposed to be,” says IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti, who returned after spending last season trying to make his mark in NASCAR. “I’m doing what I should be doing.”

INDIANAPOLIS — This is the perfect world for Dario Franchitti: back in the series that adores him, back in a car that's capable of taking him to Indianapolis 500 glory for the second time.

Yet, in a perfect world, wouldn't he be driving in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600?

Franchitti and car owner Chip Ganassi had planned on a long, fruitful NASCAR partnership after the Scotsman figured he had nothing more to achieve in the IndyCar series after winning the 500 and the series title in 2007 for Andretti Green Racing. Instead, their union ended in a few months last year, as the on-track product was slow and injury-riddled, and the off-track sponsorship quest was slower.

Fortunately for Franchitti, a seat opened with Ganassi's IndyCar team, one of the big three in IndyCar, along with AGR and Team Penske. He couldn't grab it fast enough.

Now it's as if he never left.

Franchitti is four points behind series leader Tony Kanaan through the first three events, a winner at Long Beach, Calif., (after finishing fourth in the season opener at St. Petersburg) and a starter on the outside of the front row for Sunday's 93rd Indianapolis 500.

"Timing's everything, right?" Franchitti said. "I had a year away trying something completely different and got to walk back into what I think is the best ride in the paddock."

Between Franchitti and 2008 Indy winner and series champion Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing boasts two defending champions, sort of. Franchitti, 36, never got to defend in the usual manner, but he returned to the series with that intention.

"The toughest year is whenever you're going to try to repeat. I think that's the hardest year for motivation," said Dixon, the 2003 series champion. "But as far as it goes with Dario, the last year that he did have, his motivation is at the peak."

Ganassi said he still blames himself for not helping Franchitti make a better go of it in NASCAR, but the truth was, the driver's selling points — open-wheel champion, well-spoken European sophistication, movie-star wife in Ashley Judd — didn't move the meter on sponsorship.

The open-wheel invasion of NASCAR, as it was called, was an invasion of a strange place. Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish remain in NASCAR, the former finding success on the track and the latter remaining largely due to Roger Penske's unwavering support and dollars. But for Franchitti, the package just never added up.

"Dario's an athlete, he's a proper gentleman, and he's a fiery competitor," Ganassi said. "It takes a little while to get to know each one of those attributes. With NASCAR, they want to put you in a box in a big hurry and say, 'This is the kind of driver you are, these are the kind of tracks you like, these are the kind of tracks you don't like.' When you're in an arena where people like to put labels on you, once you get labeled, it's unfortunate."

In IndyCar racing, Franchitti was known only as a champion and one of the best personalities in the paddock. So when St. Petersburg's Dan Wheldon left the No. 10 Dallara-Honda for Panther Racing, Ganassi didn't have to look far for a replacement.

"I think I'm where I'm supposed to be. I'm doing what I should be doing," Franchitti said.

"It was fun to try something completely different. Parts of it were fun, put it that way," he continued, half-laughing. "I have absolutely no regrets. But this is what I grew up doing. This is my first love. This is what I should be doing."

Back where he belongs, veteran driver Dario Franchitti hopes to recapture glory in the Indianapolis 500 05/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 12:04am]
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