For a racing driver, it is a number you're more likely to see on a speedometer than a resume: 200, as in the number of career major series open-wheel races for Dario Franchitti once the 36-year-old Scotsman starts the engine of his No. 10 car in Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "For me, this is where it starts and ends," Franchitti said by phone last week, perhaps not appreciating the circuitous poetry of his words. Returning to IRL racing last year after an awkward attempt at NASCAR's Sprint Cup in 2008, Franchitti won five races and took home the IndyCar Series championship for 2009, a repeat of sorts since he won the same crown during his last open-wheel season in 2007. Franchitti may have the most fitting sponsorship in the St. Petersburg field — he literally has a Target on his back, the retailer's red bulls-eye logo there for all to see. A year ago, he made his return to the IRL with a fourth-place showing in St. Petersburg, his third top-five finish here since 2005. "Last year, we were quick enough to win it," said Franchitti, who took third in 2005 and fifth in 2007. "It's a place we've run well at, but it hasn't shown up in the results yet. But I'm more comfortable now. I know the car better, I know the engine better, and I know my team better." Franchitti has 23 open-wheel victories, with 24 poles, and nine of his wins have come on street courses. St. Petersburg's layout, with the tight confines of downtown city streets and the open runways of Albert Whitted Airport,
suit the versatile skills of a veteran driver like Franchitti, who debuted with the old CART series in 1997.
"St. Petersburg is a great track. The airport element really helps promote passing," he says, his accent thick as he talks about the "twisty bits around the back" of the 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit.
Franchitti's success is a combination of personality and experience, Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull said.
"It's like having the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old kid out there, combined with the experience of a driver who has driven different kinds of cars for years," Hull said. "He's a firebreather, with a high degree of comfort doing what he does. The team is full of the same kind of people."
After winning the IRL title in 2007, it might have taken a 10-race stumble in NASCAR in 2008 — limited by an ankle injury and scuttled by sponsorship problems, Franchitti never made so much as a top 10 in Sprint Cup — to bring his open-wheel success to another level.
"It's probably a more appreciative Dario Franchitti you see now. He seems relaxed, seems comfortable," said ESPN analyst Scott Goodyear, who will call Sunday's race on Ch. 28. "NASCAR, maybe, was a little bit of an embarrassment, but you're going to work extra hard at a second chance because of that. I think it's raised his game in the last year."
To reach 200 career open-wheel races between CART and the IRL, most notably a rain-shortened win in the 2007 Indianapolis 500, Franchitti has been fortunate to avoid major injuries. Goodyear remembers huge wrecks that sent Franchitti upside-down in back-to-back weeks in 2007 — and notes that he has gotten his worst injuries away from IndyCars, like a back injury from a motorcycle accident in Scotland in 2003.
"You think back, and I call him damn lucky," Goodyear said. "It's tremendous to have that many starts over that length of time, between the two series. He's always been able to compete at the highest level."
His wife, actor Ashley Judd, adds to his celebrity status, and Franchitti's personality — as the bio says, born in Edinburgh, lives in Nashville — has made him one of open-wheel racing's most recognizable figures in the United States.
"It's his style," said driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, who took second in last year's race in St. Petersburg. "He's a champion, and he knows how to win races. To see him, he's calm, cool and collected, but when he needs to get speed out of a car, he can do it. And he's great on street courses. The more challenging the track, the tougher he is to beat."
Having established himself again as the driver to beat in IndyCar racing, he has his sights this weekend on a race he has yet to win, one that suits his strengths and certainly his passions.
"This is what I love to do," Franchitti said. "I love driving IndyCars. This was something I missed."
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346.