As he prepares to begin defense of his IndyCar championship when the IZOD IndyCar Series begins next weekend on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Dario Franchitti reckons there's no reason to believe things will be any different this year than in 2009, when series drivers swapped the points lead a record 15 times. Franchitti ultimately took the crown by out-dueling Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon and Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe in a season-finale shootout at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Franchitti's second series championship in three years – split by an abortive foray into NASCAR with Ganassi – made him the fifth different IndyCar champ in six years, and was forged by five victories, eight other top-five finishes and 11 bonus points from pole starts and race laps led.
"I didn't think I'd win five races and a championship in my first year back," Franchitti said. "Scott is a better driver than he was in '07 and Ryan came in every single week, as well as other people who made appearances and won races. It just seemed that Scott and Ryan every week were tough competition."
In a preseason meeting with his crew, Franchitti said that he expects Dixon to again contend for the title – along with the Team Penske triumvirate of Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power, and Tony Kanaan of Andretti Autosport. He also expects a couple of dark horses to emerge, such as Justin Wilson of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and former Formula 1 driver Takuma Sato, who will make his IndyCar debut with KV Racing.
"I said this year is going to be harder than last year and we all kind of nodded," Franchitti said. "We know the competition is going to be tougher. There will be the usual suspects who were in the title fight last year and I think you'll add a couple more. We'll have to work harder if we want to come home with another championship.
"To even challenge for another championship, we'll have to work even harder. If we do our best, we'll see if we can repeat. Right now, we're just going in with the same attitude as last year, which was let's do our best and hopefully that will put us in contention."
Of the 40 drivers who started at least one race last season, 27 earned a top-10 finish, 18 a top five and 15 wound up on the podium. Castroneves, who has won the Indianapolis 500 three times but is looking for his first series title, has been in the hunt almost every year since entering full time in 2002. He finished fourth in '09 – missing the season opener because of his federal tax evasion trial.
Briscoe, who recorded three victories in '09 and tied the series record with eight runner-up finishes, predicted that several title contenders will emerge because of the diverse schedule.
"This year, with nine road and street courses, it's going to be very challenging," he said. "There are going to be lots of different drivers vying for wins so we're going to have to be very focused and paying attention all the time."