2 – DARIO FRANCHITTI
Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Best finish: 1st (x 4)
Best start: 1st (x 2)
Championship position: 1st
It's hard to believe that, once upon a time, Dario Franchitti wasn't comfortable as an oval racer. For the past couple seasons, the left-turn only tracks have formed the foundation of his championship challenge.
This year, there were seven oval races, and the reigning champion racked up finishes of 12th, 1st, 7th, 1st, 5th, DNF, and 2nd, respectively. Of the ones he didn't win, the positions could have been vastly improved at most, but he needed a yellow at Indy to make his final-stint fuel load last 36 laps and it didn't fall that way, forcing him to pit with one lap to go. In the second Texas race, he climbed from 28th to seventh. And at Loudon he was involved in one of the more bizarre accidents of the year, on a lap 119 restart. It looked 50-50 in that he came down on Takuma Sato on the straight, but in Dario's defense, Sato was probably in his blind spot because he was almost a car length ahead. Whatever, it was an unfortunate outcome, as was his drawing of grid slot 28 in the lottery for the second Texas race.
However, putting “unfortunate” into a sentence that involves Franchitti's race form is a rare occurrence. He's very good at staying out of trouble, yes, but he's also extraordinarily lucky in comparison with his main rivals. At Long Beach, Dario was running seventh until Castroneves gift-wrapped a podium finish for him by taking Power, Servia, Dixon and himself out of the equation. In Brazil, the No. 10 spun gently into the tires, and though it took an age for him to get going again, it coincided with Alex Tagliani's spin elsewhere on the track, causing a full course caution. Franchitti had ample time to pit in the caution period and lost just four places!
And as for Toronto…Well, where do you start? The No. 10 team's pit stop strategy meshed perfectly with Castroneves causing a full course caution and thus vaulted Franchitti ahead of Power and Dixon. When Will repassed him, Dario's retaliation went very wrong – or very right, depending on your perspective. More shocking than the champion's blunder, though, which saw Power spun back to 18th, was that he went unpunished for it. (Was there a “Gone. Back in 2 hours” sign on Race Control's door that day?). Nor did Dario receive a penalty from the stewards for a similar error at Motegi that took Rahal, Kimball and Briscoe out of the running for third place (although at least in that instance Franchitti appeared to be trying to back out of the maneuver).
Some would say that Franchitti's role as IndyCar's Teflon Don is further endorsed by the lack of censure for clipping Power's tires as he entered his pit box at Milwaukee. However, from our perspective, that was a pretty minor infraction and anything other than a Franchitti win that weekend would have been a joke. Equally, there was nothing anyone could do about the No. 10 car at Loudon until his clash with Sato. In the season opener, at St. Petersburg, he beat polesitter Power to the win, albeit with his rival suffering a damaged car. At Kentucky, an amazing first pit stop vaulted Franchitti into the lead, and he was just 0.0098sec shy of beating Ed Carpenter to the checkered flag. And in the two Texas races, Dario proved he could not only dominate but also flawlessly claw his way through the pack.
To be honest, there are several qualities to Dario Franchitti, racecar driver, which can all too easily get overlooked. The first is that there's no flakiness apparent in his performance over the course of a year: he is always there, in a way you could never attribute to a Briscoe or a Castroneves. Secondly, he never lets his head drop if a poor qualifying session has left him further down the grid than he expects. Thirdly, he's still on it, every weekend; anyone who outqualifies Dixon at places as diverse as Long Beach, Milwaukee, Loudon and Sonoma clearly still has winning pace, and if he's outpaced, it's certainly never because he's not trying hard enough.
But while these qualities – plus having vastly superior luck to his two principal title rivals – won him a fourth IndyCar Series crown, they're not enough to put him top of this assessment of the best drivers of 2011.
BEST: Milwaukee – both his pole lap and his racecraft.
WORST: Motegi, particularly given that Ganassi had a clear advantage that weekend.