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Dario Franchitti's place in IndyCar history is secure

ST. PETERSBURG — Dario Franchitti doesn't need a history lesson.

When the three-time defending IndyCar series champion held court during media day this month, someone plopped a record book on a table and reminded the room that Franchitti's four series titles trail only A.J. Foyt (seven).

"You don't think I know that?" Franchitti said.

Franchitti knows Foyt's place atop the sport's history heading into the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which begins Friday and where he will be one of the top contenders. What's tougher to figure out is where Franchitti ranks after a dominant IndyCar stretch sandwiched around a failed foray into NASCAR.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said the 38-year-old Scotsman belongs among the top five drivers in history. Aside from Foyt, only Mario Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais have as many North American open-wheel championships as Franchitti. In NASCAR, only Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have at least four series titles.

"That's huge," Bernard said.

It's hard to overstate how strong Franchitti has been in his past four IndyCar seasons (2007, 2009-11). His 2008 stock car stint was plagued by an ankle injury and doomed sponsorships.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has led more than 2,600 laps in his past four IndyCar seasons. That's 26 percent of the series' total. He has won almost a quarter of the races, and his 16 wins are two more than second-place Scott Dixon.

Last year Franchitti paced all drivers with 884 laps led — more than four of every 10 in the circuit — including 94 of the 100 at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to claim his first victory in the event and his first of four season wins.

"He's a good, tough competitor," said Will Power, last year's runnerup in St. Petersburg. "He's won four championships. He's very good at his job and hard to beat."

Power should know. He has finished second to Franchitti in the series each of the past two years and has been the only driver to challenge him into the final race, including a 2011 cliffhanger that ended in tragedy.

St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon's death at Las Vegas ended last year's season finale early and devastated Franchitti. Instead of savoring his third consecutive title, Franchitti cried as he got into his No. 10 Dallara Honda for a five-lap salute to his close friend and former teammate.

Franchitti didn't celebrate his historic title then, and he didn't celebrate later. He and his team members congratulated each other at a muted Christmas party two months later, but that was all.

"There was never that sort of fist-pumping moment with all your guys," he said. "It just hasn't happened, and it won't happen, because unfortunately when I think about that championship, I think about Vegas. When I think about Vegas, I think about Dan. That says it all, really."

Franchitti thought about leaving the sport after Wheldon's death, just as he considered walking away after Greg Moore's fatal crash in 1999.

But a week after the wreck, he pulled himself into a car for testing at Indianapolis. With a new car to master and engine competition for the first time since 2005, Franchitti and other drivers expect this season to be wide open. He had to get ready to repeat again.

That's why Franchitti was hardly ecstatic when he received his fourth championship trophy last month in Indianapolis. Last season is behind him, and Franchitti is focused on his drive for five.

"The one thing we won't forget, obviously, is Dan," Franchitti said. "Apart from that, the rest of it's in the history books."

But where Franchitti ranks there remains open for debate.

. fast facts

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

What: IndyCar season opener, plus races in other series, including Indy Lights and Star Mazda

When/where: Friday-March 25, downtown streets

Defending champion: Dario Franchitti

IndyCar schedule: Friday, practices 11:50 a.m. and 2:50 p.m.; Saturday, practice 9:55 a.m., qualifying 1:55 p.m.; Sunday, race 12:30 p.m.

Tickets: Prices range from $20 for ages 12 and under for Friday and Saturday to $125 for a three-day adult upper-reserved seat. Paddock passes and convenience charges extra. Details or to buy:; (727) 898-4639, extension 225.

Dario Franchitti's place in IndyCar history is secure 03/16/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 9:35pm]
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