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Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti have titles covered

ST. PETERSBURG

It's not that Scott Dixon could let himself get stagnant. The longest-tenured driver in the history of Chip Ganassi Racing, he has seen teammates vanish when the boss was not amused. And it's not likely that the 29-year-old New Zealander would need much motivation, after capturing his first Indianapolis 500 and second IndyCar championship last season, to get ready for a title defense beginning Sunday in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. But just in case, there's the wavy-haired bloke with the jaunty brogue: Dario Franchitti. "Dario helps bring something different," Dixon said, "and it really is refreshing when you see that change because it ups your game." Up his game? After missing the 2007 title by 13 points — to Franchitti, then with Andretti Green Racing — winning 10 races and reaching the podium 22 times in 34 races over the past two seasons, Dixon said he will be pressed by being half of what appears to be one of the best driver tandems in Indy Racing League history.

It's already historic — no team in a major series has ever had the previous two champions and previous two winners of the series' biggest race.

"There aren't two other guys in the paddock I'd rather have," Ganassi said. "In fact, there aren't two guys in any paddock I'd rather have."

Dixon, who has known Franchitti since 2001 when they raced in Champ Car (then CART), said their compatible personalities and similar racing styles seem to make them a fit on multiple levels.

"The best competition you can have is from a teammate," he said. "The combination is good, and I think Dario is probably being more motivated than ever because of the season he had in NASCAR."

Oh, that.

Franchitti catalogues his 11 months in NASCAR as a "character-building experience," but its ultimate value was in reminding him how much he enjoyed open-wheel racing. He cited a need for a change for making the regimen switch at age 35 after winning eight open-wheel races in 12 seasons, four in 2007.

"It feels very familiar," he said of returning. "I certainly don't regret going over to try NASCAR. I got to go away and come back and actually appreciate more what I like to do."

Franchitti said his tenure in Ganassi's No. 40 Sprint Cup Dodge, which ultimately lasted only 10 races after sponsor woes forced its closure in July, was "done with the best of intentions," but said non-competitive cars his first several races were not conducive to learning a new trade.

Breaking an ankle in a Nationwide series crash April 26 at Talladega cost him another month of races just as he was getting more comfortable, he said, and forced him to watch enviously as open-wheel racing staged its first post-unification Indianapolis 500, a race he'd won the previous May.

"When it was announced that the series was unified, on one hand I was elated for all my friends in the series, whether it was drivers, owners, mechanics, I was thinking that was cool," he admitted. "Then I was like, 'Man, my timing is terrible.' "

Ultimately, Franchitti showed progress in the Nationwide series with a pole and top-five at Watkins Glen, but finished 32nd or worse in nine of 10 Sprint Cup races.

Ganassi told him in July that his Sprint Cup program would close — ultimately costing scores of people their jobs — but immediately began prodding him to return to the IRL, Franchitti said. Dixon's then-teammate, Dan Wheldon, who came to Ganassi as the defending 2005 series champion and Indy 500 winner, and lost the 2006 title on a tiebreaker, said he would soon sign an extension. Ganassi said he told Wheldon of his intentions to have discussions through an intermediary with Tony Kanaan. Ganassi also had personal discussions with Franchitti.

"He was saying to me, 'Hey, what do you think of IndyCar? You want to run IndyCar again? What are your thoughts on that?' " Franchitti recalled, "and he just kept asking about it and asking about it."

Wheldon, according to Ganassi managing director Mike Hull, informed the team before the Detroit Grand Prix in August that he would not return — and signed with Panther Racing.

Franchitti flew to Detroit on the race weekend, discussed returning and quickly agreed.

Though Dixon said he and Wheldon were "maybe not the best of friends and maybe not the best of teammates" early in their three seasons together, they eventually became good friends.

"I would never have won last year without Dan," he said. "He definitely taught me a lot on ovals. Definitely, when you see someone go like that, it's not cool, but it's the way the business is, unfortunately. I of anybody should probably know. How many teammates have I had, maybe nine or 10 since I've been here."

Seven, actually. But is there a secret to his longevity besides winning?

"Steering clear of him (Ganassi), I think," Dixon laughed. "I think he can clash quite easily with a lot of different personalities and when he gets stuck at something, he gets stuck in his ways and it's kind of hard to change it. Who knows, maybe that'll come and happen with me one day. I don't know."

Now that's motivation.

Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti have titles covered 04/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 1:23am]

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