Monday, October 12, 2009

A sterling champion ... and a cautionary tale

Sacramento, California – Scotsman Dario Franchitti clinching a second IndyCar Series championship in three years was a source of inspiration … and a cautionary tale.

How appropriate that the eminently likable Franchitti won the series’ second-biggest prize – behind the Indianapolis 500 – after a nightmare year in NASCAR. After winning both the IndyCar title and the Indy 500 in 2007, Franchitti opted to follow other open-wheel stars to the NASCAR ranks in 2008.

Big mistake.

Franchitti showed flashes of competitiveness but was ultimately smashed down by better-funded teams and ultra-aggressive NASCAR competitors. Franchitti also endured a cracked ankle in one of those late-hit NASCAR crashes that make you say, “What the hell?”

No such troubles in 2009. Franchitti was competitive right out of the gate back in IndyCar this year, due in no small part to the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Team, a machine the equal of Roger Penske’s juggernaut. The fact that Franchitti won what amounted to a fuel economy run in Saturday’s Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway takes nothing away from the race win and his body of work over the whole year.

Check the record books: Franchitti had some terribly bad breaks in his open-wheel racing past, denying him yet more series titles over time. This time around, it all clicked. And yeah, it felt good. Franchitti is a fine representative of the series.

Franchitti’s rags-to-riches run from NASCAR to IndyCar in 2008-09 offers up one additional point, that cautionary tale. Pay attention Danica Patrick.

What Franchitti went through in NASCAR in 2008 is dramatic evidence of how bad it can go for an open-wheel star in that series. The top-tier NASCAR series are dominated by hugely funded teams, and let’s face it, a lot depends on the drivers with the top teams cooperating with each other during races – especially the spotlighted oval races at Daytona and Talladega.

I know that NASCAR says it would love to have Danica join the family. Maybe that’s true. But based on history, I have to wonder how much cooperation Danica would get from NASCAR drivers (and fans) who still drum up the history of old Dixie, the cradle of the sport. You also have to wonder how many drivers would wait even a heartbeat to put her into the fence if she cut them off hard.

Just saying, having watched NASCAR for more than 40 years.

And take the case of former IndyCar star Sam Hornish Jr. Although he has shown strong progress over two years, Hornish has never competed for the win at the end of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. For someone with Patrick’s temperament, you have to wonder how long she could stand finishing mid-pack before she exploded.

Of course, it’s free country. If the contract language works, why can’t Danica drive in the IndyCar series and periodically hook it up in the NASCAR ranks? That would certainly be interesting. I’d watch it.

Personally, I’d rather see her make giant history at Indianapolis in the open-wheelers. Maybe that’s in the stars too. It will be interesting to see how it all sorts out for IndyCar's most recognizable face in 2010.

For now, congratulations to Dario.

LATE PIT STOP: Hats off to Penske and Co. for keeping it clean in the closing stages of the caution-free race at Homestead.

For those who did not see it, Franchitti won by conserving fuel and passing fellow championship contenders Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon when they had to pit in the closing laps. Had a caution flag come out in those closing laps, there’s a better-than-fair chance that Briscoe or Dixon would have fought it out for the title, because fuel conservation would have gone out the window under the slow caution laps.

Nobody said so, but I have to believe it must have occurred to Briscoe’s Penske teammate, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to just sort of scrape his car against the Homestead wall in the closing laps, bringing out a caution and giving Briscoe his shot.

It certainly would have occurred to me. Castroneves was well out of contention for the race win at that point, and who would have been the wiser if he had sort of slipped up the track and brushed the wall with, say, 15 laps to go?

Of course, nothing of the kind happened – a credit to the Penske organization and the people who compete in IndyCar. It was left to Franchitti, Dixon and Briscoe to decide it on the track in straight-up competition. As it should be.

That was not the case in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, when Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. deliberately crashed on team orders and helped teammate Fernando Alonso notch the win in that Formula One race. That bit of sportsmanship came home to bite Renault big-time this year, with enormous penalties handed down, including a lifetime ban for Renault team principal Flavio Briatore.

There’s a message in all this, the kind of message that most children figure out by the age of 5. For the IndyCar Series, the larger message is a moment of true sportsmanship in a ferociously competitive endeavor.

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