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Franchitti to return to IndyCar in '09, replace Wheldon at Ganassi

INDIANAPOLIS -- Target Chip Ganassi Racing announced Tuesday that 2007 IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti will return to open-wheelers in 2009 with the Indianapolis-based team. He'll replace Dan Wheldon in the team's No. 10 car alongside Scott Dixon.

After competing for more than a decade on the American open-wheel scene, Franchitti joined the Ganassi organization this year in pursuit of a NASCAR stock car career. Although he had some promising runs in the Nationwide Series, Franchitti failed to make the all-important top 35 in Sprint Cup owner points and struggled to qualify on occasion. The 35-year-old Scot's efforts suffered an additional setback in late April when he broke his left ankle when his Nationwide car was hit broadside at Talladega Superspeedway.

Franchitti was thought to have the inside track for Ganassi's No. 41 Sprint Cup entry for 2009, but elected to come back to the unified IndyCar Series.

"Part of the reason that I signed with Ganassi last year was because of how many options that Chip has at his disposal for a driver," Franchitti stated. "You can do almost any form of racing that you want and with unification and the new schedule having more road and street courses it made me think about this more and more.

"I have really enjoyed this last season in stock cars and have not completely closed that chapter of my professional career, but the opportunity that arose was just something I could not pass up," he said.

Dixon has dominated the IndyCar Series this year for Ganassi's open-wheel team, usually outpacing his teammate Wheldon in the process.

"It is going to be very exciting to have Dario in one of our IndyCars next year," commented Ganassi. "I have always admired his competitive spirit when he raced against us and have really grown to see more of what he is about this season while he raced in NASCAR.

"When there was a possibility of an opening on our IndyCar team, the only person I thought about was Dario. This is going to be a great move for Dario and for our team," Ganassi said.

Wheldon's status within the team was openly questioned in recent weeks. On Tuesday, Wheldon agreed to a multiyear deal to return to Panther Racing, his first team, where he will drive the No. 4 car.

"I have enjoyed these last three seasons with Target Chip Ganassi Racing but will be moving on to pursue a very exciting opportunity for 2009," Wheldon said.

Franchitti joined the CART IndyCar Series in 1997 and scored his first race win in 1998 after switching to Team Green. He won 10 races in the CART series and lost the 1999 championship to Juan Pablo Montoya on a tiebreaker.

Franchitti won eight IndyCar Series races with Andretti Green Racing from 2004 to '07, including the Indianapolis 500, and he won the series championship in '07 in thrilling fashion when future teammate Dixon ran out of fuel on the last lap.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.