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Indy 500 winner Franchitti needs to get title attack back on track at Toronto

When Dario Franchitti won his third Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion May 29, it appeared to be the key victory that would launch him on a path to a fourth straight IZOD IndyCar Series championship and his fifth IndyCar title overall. But after a string of bad luck, including a blown engine at the start of the Iowa Corn Indy 250 on June 23 at Iowa Speedway, Franchitti arrives in Toronto this weekend eighth in points, 80 behind leader Will Power of Team Penske.

This is not a typical Franchitti season. But he realizes he must pick up the pace beginning at Toronto if he is going to have a chance of winning this year’s championship.

“I just keep fighting,” Franchitti said. “I think if you're going to quit, you're in the wrong job. Trust me, I went through years of this kind of stuff happening, and so for it to happen for a couple of races, you just shrug it off. I think I can see it on the team, as well, they can shrug it off, and you get back up and you keep fighting. That's what we are trying to do.”

Judging by past performance, Franchitti is heading to a pretty good track for his big turnaround in the Honda Indy Toronto on Sunday at Toronto’s Exhibition Place. Franchitti has won two of the last three races at Toronto and won the CART race on the streets of Canada’s largest city in 1999.

“Well, I've always loved racing in Toronto,” said Franchitti, who drives for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “I think it started off in 1997 when I was driving for Carl Hogan and had a pretty good start there, getting my first pole position. I've always enjoyed the track and the challenge of the bumpy surface and the multiple surface changes there. So that's part of it. Again, I definitely love the fans out there. I think it's something to do with the fact that it's quite a big Scottish and Italian expat community there. It's always been fun to race there and definitely proud of the wins I've managed to have there.”

Last year, Franchitti got some breaks along the way as he was able to rally from behind and take over the championship lead in what would be the final IZOD IndyCar Series race of the 2011 season Oct. 2 at Kentucky Speedway.

But this year, apart from his tremendous victory in the most competitive Indianapolis 500 in history, luck has not been on Franchitti’s side.

“I think that's part of racing, and I think it evens out,” Franchitti said. “There are some periods when just nothing would go right, and then certainly last three years, things would    if there was kind of a    if there was a 50/50 situation, it would tend to go my way. And this year and the years previous, if it was a 50/50, maybe it doesn't work out, and that's just part of life.

“You've just got to keep pushing and just keep fighting in there. I think myself and every other drivers goes through exactly the same thing; whether it's on track incidents or whether it's the first race of the year, running out of fuel in the last corner. There's times before where we would have run out of fuel crossing the finish line or some of those mechanical failures, whether it's the engine or suspension, braking; I think we have had four races out of, what, nine where we have had either issues with either mechanically or running out of fuel.

“So it's just part of it, and you've just got to deal with it and brush yourself off when it happens and move on.”

Franchitti has plenty of time to catch up on his competition and get back in serious championship consideration. But for now he is experiencing a side of IZOD IndyCar Series racing that is unfamiliar.

“It's very humbling when it happens,” Franchitti said. “I'm definitely proud of the four championships and the three ‘500’ wins. I know that the guys on the Target team and the guys at Andretti Autosport, what we did together, it's something that we    it's something we very proud of, because it's a hard thing to do.

“As far as what's next, you never know if you're going to win another race, but you've just got to try    you go out every weekend and try to win that race. It's tough in the championship right now, we are lying eighth, and we are still definitely mathematically in it, which is somewhat surprising with some of the mechanical failures we've had. Some of the issues we've had this year, but we are still definitely in the fight, and we'll be fighting all the way to the finish.”

This weekend marks the return of “push-to-pass” in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Some drivers will have to know the proper time to use the overtake assist system.

“It's going to be very interesting with that push to pass, how much power are we actually going to get,” Franchitti said. “I know the numbers of boost, but how much will it actually translate on track, I think there's going to be quite a big difference. That, combined with the fact that you are now allowed to defend again this year is going to make for some pretty interesting racing, and I think it will definitely liven things up a little bit.”

Last year’s race at Toronto was sparked by a lively feud between Franchitti and Power after the Team Penske driver claimed that Franchitti was a “dirty driver” when he drove him into the tire barriers early in the race.

“There were definitely some discussions after the race last year, after several races last year; and I think in a lot of ways, that was good,” Franchitti said. “I think it showed the fans the passion that the teams and the drivers have for what we do. I think sometimes we have kind of almost kept that passion too hidden, maybe, and it was definitely out in the open. That was good. That is definitely a part of it, when you've got people in such a competitive environment, that's going to happen sometimes.

“I think that's all in the past. Will and I had a disagreement about that. I think we have now    I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think we have now kind of realized we both had our part in that accident, and we've definitely moved on.”

While Franchitti represents part of IndyCar’s glorious history, there are plenty of young drivers ready to battle it out and win the championship, including points leader Power, who has a three-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. But Franchitti believes second-year IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe is the one to watch as the Andretti Autosport driver returns to his hometown of Toronto fifth in points, 30 behind Power.

He even compares Hinchcliffe’s personality to that of Franchitti’s friend Canadian Greg Moore, who was killed in a crash in 1999 in the CART season finale at Fontana, Calif.

“I think James could be under a lot of pressure this weekend, but I think it's up to him to manage that pressure but not let it kind of interfere, not let it into that bubble, I guess, that we sort of live in on race weekend,” Franchitti said. “I think just don't let that in, and he'll do fine. He's done an outstanding job, in my opinion. He makes very, very few mistakes on the track, and I'm very, very impressed with him. I think you've got to manage your expectations, too. I think if you get carried away with them, that can be a negative, and I think James is smart enough.

“And one thing I've learned about James I think is he's very smart, and he'll treat it like any other race. Obviously, the next big break for James is winning an IndyCar race. He's been very consistent and done a hell of a job, and I think as I say as long as he treats this race like any other week, he'll be just fine.

“As far as Greg, out of the car, I see Greg has that    just that kind of crazy sense of humor and a really good person; and I see that from James, that connection with the fans. They definitely have that in common. I think a lot of that is the Canadian personality, as well. He's a good guy and very, very impressive.”

Since 2007, no driver has been more impressive in the IZOD IndyCar Series than Franchitti, who has won the championship in every year he competed for the title. Franchitti was not in the series in 2008 when he attempted to switch to NASCAR. But ever since he returned to the series that best suits his style, Franchitti has been a winner.

That is why this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner realizes he needs some of that past magic if he is going to get back on a championship path in 2012 beginning at Toronto.

                                                                ***
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