<
>

Franchitti back where he belongs

On a hot July day last summer, Dario Franchitti knew it was time to fess up. He wanted to go back where he belonged -- in the driver's seat of an Indy car.

"I tried to kid myself I wasn't missing it," Franchitti said. "But I couldn't."

It's human nature to want to try something different. If you have success in one area, you think, "Maybe I can do it over there, also."

And if "over there" is considered the bigger, better and more lucrative place to be, the temptation is hard to resist.

Franchitti found himself tempted at the end of the 2007 IndyCar season.

At age 34, the personable Scotsman had accomplished almost everything he ever hoped to do in American open-wheel racing. He won the IndyCar Series championship that year for Andretti Green Racing, the same season he won the Indianapolis 500.

Then NASCAR -- the big stage of American motorsports -- came calling. Franchitti knew it was now or never. He felt the tug to follow the trend of open-wheel racers moving to NASCAR.

Glory surely was headed his way, a chance to show the world how good he really is as a race car driver. But that chance was over almost before it began.

Franchitti competed in only 10 Sprint Cup races for Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team. He failed to post a top-20 and had only one finish in the top 30.

Franchitti knew it would take time to adjust to stock cars, but time was running out. Sponsorship never materialized, a part of this deal that seemed like a no-brainer.

We're talking about the defending Indy 500 winner, a dashing and debonair European with a gorgeous movie-star wife in Ashley Judd. What company wouldn't jump at the chance to place its name on his hood?

But it didn't happen. Wrong place, wrong time. The economy was going downhill in a hurry and no one knew if Franchitti could race competitively at the Cup level.

"Not getting sponsorship was a huge shock to me," Ganassi said. "I just didn't understand it. But a lot of times, the racing business is an indication of what's happening in the country. We were on the front end of the economic problems last year. It was just bad timing."

And who would have thought Franchitti would find himself on the disabled list. He suffered a broken ankle in a crash during a Nationwide Series event at Talladega in April.

The irony of the situation was inescapable. Franchitti walked away unscathed from two horrifying airborne crashes during the 2007 IndyCar season.

Some people felt one of the reasons he left to go to NASCAR was the feeling that stock cars had reached a point of greater safety than Indy cars.

Franchitti says safety had nothing to do with his decision to make the switch, but he found out Talladega can be a pretty scary place, also. After the injury, the whispers began that Franchitti's NASCAR experiment was over, but Franchitti tuned out the rumors.

"I'm one of those people that close down outside distractions," Franchitti said. "I was just focused on trying to be successful in NASCAR. But when I broke my ankle, I kind of came up for air."

The injury meant Franchitti had a chance to go back to Indy in May. He was back with old friends at the historic Brickyard and his feelings began to change.

"It was an emotional thing," Franchitti said. "Race day was especially tough. That got my thought process going about coming back."

Franchitti returned to compete in three more Cup events in June before the end came. With no sponsorship prospects, Ganassi was forced to shut down the No. 40 Dodge operation.

"It really hurt me," Ganassi said. "I felt we never gave Dario a fair shot."

Franchitti had come to NASCAR on top, unlike the other open-wheelers who were trying to make the switch. Even Juan Pablo Montoya, Franchitti's NASCAR teammate, jumped to stock cars when his Formula One career was on the downslide.

If Dario could win at Indy and win the championship this year, that's a movie script you couldn't believe. I don't even want to say it again because I don't want to jinx it.

-- Chip Ganassi

But Franchitti had gone from the defending Indy 500 winner and series champion to a man without a job.

"I'd like to have been successful," Franchitti said. "But for all the reasons we know, it didn't work out. So I'm pretty lucky that I came back [to IndyCar] and jumped straight into the best seat in the paddock."

Ganassi told Franchitti at Detroit in August he wanted him to drive for his IndyCar team in 2009. Franchitti replaced Dan Wheldon in the No. 10 Target Honda. His teammate is Scott Dixon, the man who equaled Franchitti's 2007 success by winning the 2008 Indy 500 and the series title.

"We've been great friends for many years," Dixon said of Franchitti. "He was a guy I definitely looked up to when I came into the Champ Car series in 2001."

Franchitti felt comfortable from the moment he first sat in the car this season. It was like he never left. He finished fourth in the opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., and won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in his second race back.

"A lot of those demons from last year were exorcized at Long Beach," Ganassi said. "But if Dario could win at Indy and win the championship this year, that's a movie script you couldn't believe. I don't even want to say it again because I don't want to jinx it. But I do think both those things can happen."

Franchitti qualified on the front row last week for the Indy 500, starting third, the same place he started when he won it in 2007.

"The year away really made me appreciate how much I enjoyed doing this," Franchitti said last week at Indy. "It's such a thrill driving these things."

Franchitti turns 36 on Tuesday, five days before the Indy 500. He says over and over how glad he is to be back in open-wheel racing, but he doesn't view his NASCAR experience as a mistake.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I don't regret the decision at all."

Sometimes we have to step away from what we love to understand how much it means to us. Franchitti learned that lesson. He's back where he belongs.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.