Indy win justifies Franchitti's greatness

FORT WORTH, Texas -- With his Sunday victory at the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500, Dario Franchitti became just the 17th driver to win the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" for at least a second time, and he joined Helio Castronoves as the only multiple winners since the turn of the century.

Franchitti won the Indy 500 for the second time in four years, and now he's trying to follow it up in the same style in which he capped his first Indy 500 victory in 2007 -- with an Izod IndyCar Series championship, which would be his second consecutive and third in four years.

The chase resumes Saturday night in the Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway, a place where Franchitti has run well in six starts -- with three top-five finishes -- but one in which he has failed to take the checkered flag.

Currently in second place in the IndyCar Series point standings, just 11 points back of Will Power and 13 ahead of Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, Franchitti could thrust himself into the lead with a Texas victory at about the halfway point of the season.

Yet in open-wheel racing, where legends are made at the Brickyard, do season championships take a backseat to Indy 500 victories? Winning NASCAR's Daytona 500, that league's Super Bowl, doesn't supersede its chase for a title.

"We'll see," Franchitti, 36, said Wednesday after a luncheon in his honor in Fort Worth. "Let's find out what the result is and then I'll let you know."

Any open-wheel racing fans can name the only four-time Indy 500 winners -- Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr., and A.J. Foyt -- but how many can rattle off the last four series champions? Franchitti is among an exclusive list of three with Mears and Al Unser Jr., who have won both the Indy 500 and multiple Indy car championships.

Helio Castroneves, by comparison, is a three-time Indy 500 winner (2001, '02, '09), but has yet to win a series championship in his Indy car career.

Looking back on his 2007 series championship, Franchitti sounded as though he didn't expect the sensation of winning the season title to rival the joy of winning his first Indy 500.

"When I won in '07, won the 500 and the championship in the same year, the sense of accomplishment of winning the championship, I was quite surprised by it, because it's a season-long battle, all different types of tracks," Franchitti said. "But, for us as a team, and I think most teams are the same, the first hurdle is winning Indy. And then get on with trying to win the championship."

Franchitti's second Indy 500 victory instantly vaulted him into the pantheon of great drivers. He is being compared to his fellow countryman and personal hero Jim Clark as well as the great Jackie Stewart, who also hails from Franchitti's native Scotland.

"I get kind of embarrassed by it. I looked at the list of two-time winners the other night and it was [Arie Luyendyk] and those types of guys and I just thought, 'that's pretty cool,' " Franchitti said. "Anybody who's won the Indy 500, whether it's one or four times or two times, whatever, it's a very special club to be a member of."

Beyond the Brickyard, it's fascinating to think how dominant Franchitti might have been had he not left Indy racing for NASCAR after his 2007 title. He returned to the Indy series in 2009 and never missed a beat. He didn't win the Indy 500, but he took his second season championship.

Now he has a chance to dominate his sport much the way four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson has spun doughnuts around his competitors. No Indy Car driver has won consecutive series titles since Sam Hornish Jr., did it in 2001 and 2002, but those titles came during the 12-year IRL/CART split, which created watered-down competition.

Hornish added a third title in 2006, but no driver has won three in four years since split in 1996.

"Jimmie's done a fabulous job in NASCAR," said Franchitti. "He's been dominant because he has done the best job. He has got the best team as well. He continues to amaze me, the guy, he's so competitive. He's such a nice guy out of the car and such a killer instinct inside the car. I love watching him drive."

The same can be said of Franchitti.

Jeff Caplan covers motor sports for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.