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Franchitti returns to title throne in a moving, inspirational journey

MIAMI -- Just one night after becoming the "Comeback Kid" by winning his second IndyCar Series title, Dario Franchitti got the ultimate show of respect from his fellow drivers.

After receiving the IndyCar cup, Franchitti was picked up by his fellow drivers Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe, who tossed him in the pool at the W Hotel on South Beach.

Win an IndyCar title and get tossed in the pool.

But the soaking-wet Scotsman didn't mind one bit because he had returned to the pinnacle of his sport after an ill-fated attempt at NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in 2008 was parked for lack of sponsorship.

Franchitti thought his days as a race driver were coming to an end, but team owner Chip Ganassi knew that wasn't the case. He offered Franchitti a chance to return to IndyCar as the driver of the No. 10 entry at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing where he would team with 2008 IndyCar champ Dixon.

Together, the two formed the most powerful 1-2 combination in IndyCar racing, with Franchitti winning Saturday's Firestone Indy 300 and the 2009 championship by 11 points over Dixon.

But Franchitti's second-straight IndyCar crown came with a twist.

"I guess you could say I was on holiday in 2008," said Franchitti, referring to the fact he did not participate in IndyCar while he attempted to switch to NASCAR. "But I wouldn't change anything, and I've said that all along. I wouldn't change the decisions I made. I got to go do something completely different, have a bit of a holiday and realize what I was missing and come back and come back with the best team in the paddock.

"I learned things as a driver. I got to drive in stock car, I got out of my comfort zone, and I learned a lot of new things, and there's things that I can apply to IndyCar. That's made me a better driver.

"I'm absolutely where I should be. I should be in IndyCars. That is what I grew up to do, race in the IndyCar Series. I wouldn't change my decision I made."

It was Ganassi who had lured Franchitti to NASCAR in the first place. In 2007, Franchitti was in the final year of his contract with Andretti Green Racing and battling with Ganassi driver Dixon for the IndyCar championship. When Dixon ran out of fuel in the last turn of the last lap of the final race of the season at Chicagoland Speedway, Franchitti sped past to win both the race and the 2007 title.

One month later, Franchitti signed with Ganassi to drive in NASCAR Sprint Cup because he wanted "a new challenge."

That's exactly what he got as the challenge was not only difficult on the race track but in sponsorship as well. Franchitti suffered a broken ankle when he was involved in a crash in a Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on April 26, 2008.

Out of the race car while he was recovering from the injury, Franchitti decided to visit his old mates at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during practice for the 2008 Indianapolis 500.

"From about May onwards, I had kind of been getting this hankering on for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Franchitti admitted. "When I had my broken ankle I kind of worked around it, and it got me thinking about coming back. I'm the kind of person when I do something, I immerse myself in it and I had immersed myself in NASCAR.

"But Chip had come a couple of times and said something like, "Hey, we could do an IndyCar deal," and that was that."

Franchitti recalled getting the phone call from Ganassi last June, informing him he was parking his NASCAR ride because of lack of sponsorship.

"He told me that we were closing the team down because he couldn't continue to pay out of pocket. It was going to bring the whole team down, and that was a pretty tough call for him to make," Franchitti said. "A lot of people lost their jobs at a bad time.

"I wondered what was going to happen. I had some offers to do some sports car stuff. So Chip and I had been talking about various options for this year. I went to Detroit to watch my brother race and to talk with Chip about my options."

And that option included a return to IndyCar where he would replace Dan Wheldon in the No. 10 car.

It didn't take long for Franchitti to make the right decision.

"The most bizarre thing, we agreed to the deal, two minutes, 30 minutes, and then we argued for about eight hours on this stupid point," Franchitti recalled. "Chip sat me down and grilled me pretty hard in Detroit: Why do I want to come back to IndyCar? Was I up for the challenge and ready to do it again and give 100 percent?

"I'm just glad they invited me back to come and play. I really enjoyed it. I wanted to be part of the unified series, the places we get to race at and the people I get to race against and the cars I get to drive. It's pretty cool."

It didn't take long for Franchitti to show that he belonged in IndyCar. He won the second race of the season in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April. He was a leading contender to win the Indianapolis 500 but watched another "Comeback Kid" drive to victory when Helio Castroneves won his third Indy 500.

Franchitti would challenge for the championship and arrived at Homestead-Miami Speedway just five points behind Dixon in the championship. He won the pole on Friday and gained one point so he entered the race four points behind Dixon.

He discovered early in Saturday's race that his car didn't have the speed to race with Dixon and Ryan Briscoe -- the only other title contender -- so he switched to fuel conservation mode.

Franchitti was able to win Saturday's race by making three pit stops while Dixon and Briscoe had to make four stops. When Dixon pitted for fuel with seven laps to go and Briscoe pitted just five laps from the checkered flag, Franchitti was in the lead.

He proved to be good to the last drop, winning a career-high fifth race of the season and his second championship.

Comeback complete.

"I didn't think I'd win five races and a championship in my first year back," Franchitti said. "I knew driving for team Target, I'd have good equipment, just a question of could I get back into it and compete at a level that I had already.

"From that second win at Long Beach, the winner in the second race at Long Beach, I knew we could get it done. If there were any regrets, I guess it was at Indy. We felt Scott and I had winning cars and we didn't execute, so it took us some weeks to make up for that."

Shortly after winning Saturday night's race, Franchitti reflected on another championship battle that he had lost 10 years ago. That's when he finished tied with then-rookie Juan Montoya in CART series points but lost the championship on the tiebreaker because Montoya had seven wins to Franchitti's three.

But Franchitti lost something much more important that day -- he lost his best friend, Greg Moore, who was killed earlier in that race when he lost control in the second turn and slammed into the infield retaining wall at California Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

"I don't really think about that as far as oh, my God, I lost the championship this day," Franchitti said. "It will be ten years ago in a couple of weeks. I think about Greg Moore all the time. But especially -- when I go to Fontana and then come here I always think about it. Greg Moore won his last race here. We had the party to end all parties after that one. That was quite something.

"We lost a great guy that day. It's tough to talk about it quite a lot. You sit and think, if he was here today we'd be finishing second."

Dario Franchitti continues to carry Moore in his heart every day of his life.

And Franchitti's "Comeback Kid" season is heartwarming and inspiring as well, proving that he could leave a series, try NASCAR and come back to IndyCar as a true winner.

Team Penske president Tim Cindric said it best when asked to describe the remarkable comeback story of the 2009 IndyCar Series champion.

"He left the series as a champion in 2007 and he returned to the series as a champion tonight," Cindric said.

One of the interesting subplots to Dario Franchitti's story is his marriage to actress Ashley Judd, who attempts to maintain her privacy at the race track by focusing the attention on her husband's racing career.

But Mrs. Franchitti admitted her husband's second IndyCar Champion was a "True Hollywood Story."

"How great is my husband at being fast while saving fuel?" Judd said as she watched her husband leave a burnout down the frontstretch after the race. "It is such sweet redemption after last year. It is so perfect it almost defies credibility.

"A Hollywood screenwriter couldn't have written a better story."

As she ran down pit lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway to greet Franchitti in victory lane, Judd was ecstatic, while acknowledging the disappointment for teammate Scott Dixon and his wife Emma.

"I feel for Scott and Emma because of how close we have become," Judd said. "I would have been thrilled for them if Scott had won. The guys worked hard all season. To go from the greatest competitors to try to be teammates that was a pretty interesting transition for them to make. They had to learn how to trust each other and it all worked out.

"I wasn't nervous at all when I realized he could do it on fuel. He is very good at being fast and saving fuel.

Dixon's wife, Emma, is a former hurdler from Great Britain, and while she is not an actress, she bears a striking resemblance to another famous Brit, Kate Beckinsale.

While NASCAR is a sport of the masses, sports car racing has always been the playground for the elite. It's where the millionaire sportsman can test his racing skills in sports cars such as Porsches, Lexus and BMWs.

And while the majority of the Rolex Grand Am Series is made up of professional race drivers, one driver continues a famous Hollywood legacy that has included Steve McQueen, James Garner and Paul Newman.

Patrick Dempsey is the star of "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC after a film career that began as a youngster in such films as "Can't Buy Me Love," "Loverboy" and more recently "Sweet Home, Alabama" and "Made of Honor."

When he isn't playing "Dr. Derek Shepherd (aka Dr. McDreamy)" on television, Dempsey is passionate about his role as a race driver in Rolex Grand American Racing.

Earlier this year, Dempsey competed in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in France. On Saturday, he drove in the Grand American Series season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"At Le Mans, you realize in that race that it's about the country you represent" said Dempsey, a native of Maine. "We could feel that pressure and you really want to put the best foot forward on and off the track. It's about the country you represent and you feel that every time you get in the car.

"It was one of those life-changing moments. It was a dream that I had and it came true. It took a long time for me to come down from that.

"It was funny to go from Le Mans to Mid-Ohio and stay at some beat-up old hotel off the freeway, but we were very fortunate to be there and finish ninth."

While McQueen had a victory at Sebring, the most successful actor/race driver was Newman, who won many sports car races and competed into his 80s. And country music legend Marty Robbins drove in 35 Cup races in NASCAR from the 1966-82, which included a fifth-place finish at Michigan in 1974.

Dempsey continues that legacy of celebrity-turned-race driver.

"McQueen, with a broken foot, finished second at Sebring, but look at what Paul Newman did on and off the track," Dempsey said. "Nobody comes close to that. They set the template and the shoes are there to follow. McQueen never had a chance to race as much as he would have liked. Paul Newman, on and off the track, what he did with his foundation was incredible. Newman took his celebrity and used it for something good.

"Much is given and much is expected. To use your celebrity to help other people is important.

"As for my racing, I'm a little disappointed with the results this year. If I'm consistent in the car, I think we can be at that point where we can win races and that is always the goal."

Dempsey is also part-owner of Vision Racing's IndyCar Series team which is owned by former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO and Indy Racing league founder Tony George.

"It's very difficult to balance out both series, but Tony and I were talking on Friday about stuff we would like to do in the 24 Hours of Daytona next year, but I'm very much a part of the team," Dempsey said. "When Ed Carpenter (Vision Racing's IndyCar Series driver) nearly won at Kentucky, I nearly lost my voice. It's nice to see the team has grown and very competitive. To see Ed drive so well through that race, he drove a smart race and it went down to the wire."

When Gil de Ferran announced he was retiring as an IndyCar Series driver in 2003, he won the final IndyCar race of his career at Texas Motor Speedway.

De Ferran would one day return to the cockpit of an American Le Mans Series (ALMS) Acura Sports Car and enjoy a successful second career as a race driver before announcing in August that he would retire at the end of this season with a focus on becoming a team owner in IndyCar.

De Ferran, co-driving with young star Simon Pagenaud, hung up his racing helmet in dramatic fashion with a sensational overall win in the four-hour Monterey Sports Car Championships on the famed 2.238-mile road circuit. But it wasn't easy for de Ferran.

De Ferran was pressured by Adrian Fernandez for the last hour in wheel-to-wheel action, where the two swapped the lead several times before the Brazilian star held off the Mexican racer by just .662 seconds at the finish.

The win was the fifth of the year for de Ferran Motorsports and gave de Ferran a spectacular sendoff of a stellar racing career.

"It certainly wasn't an easy win today," de Ferran said. "I was driving hard to hold off Adrian [Fernandez] and trying to save fuel."

De Ferran admitted he thought of the storybook finish that would come with winning the final race of his career before the contest began.

"Coming into the weekend, there were several thoughts going through my head," he said. "But once I was in the car, I thought only about winning the race. I had a job to do here. I didn't really think about my last race until I shut off the engine. Then I had a lot of thoughts about my career. Simon drove fantastic today and gave us a big lead. But Adrian wasn't about to give us an easy win. He was tough. I am just glad it is over now.

"It was a dream weekend for me."

De Ferran was always a class act as a race driver, winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2003 and CART championships in 2000 and 2001. When he makes the switch to become an IndyCar team owner, expect de Ferran to run a first-class operation.

Danica Patrick had her best finish in the season-long IndyCar standings in her five-year career when she finished fifth for the 2009 season.

Patrick signed her contract to remain in IndyCar with Andretti Green Racing last month, but the official announcement has yet to be made while various sponsorship scenarios are finalized. An AGR source said they hope to have that sponsorship completed within the next two to three weeks, then Patrick's return can be officially announced by the team and sponsor.

Judging from her post-race comments, it's obvious Patrick is already looking to continue her improvement in IndyCar next season.

"As far as the season goes, I'm happy," Patrick said. "We've got some work to do over the winter. We know what we need to do and we'll be ready for next year."

While Patrick returns for a full IndyCar Series season, her agent at IMG continues to explore a limited Nationwide Series schedule. NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed to SI.com on Oct. 4 that Patrick's agent has met with Kelley Earnhardt for a limited schedule in the JR Motorsports car, which is part of the Hendrick Motorsports family.

After getting bombarded by questions regarding Patrick, Hendrick issued a curious statement to the media when asked about the female driver after Jimmie Johnson won Sunday's NASCAR race at Fontana, Calif.

"I don't think she's important to the future of our sport," Hendrick said. "She would add a new dimension, maybe, if she participated in the Nationwide Series or the Cup Series one day. But I don't think that's going to make any difference where NASCAR is."

While the NASCAR options seem to get plenty of attention, her fulltime "day job" will continue to be in IndyCar with team owner Michael Andretti's operation.

"The only instructions I told them before the race is don't hit each other." -- IndyCar Series team owner Chip Ganassi on what he told his two drivers, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti as they battled for the championship in the final race of the season.

"I had really forgotten about Dario to tell you the truth. I thought it was between me and Scott Dixon. We both got done in by Scott's teammate." -- Team Penske IndyCar Series driver Ryan Briscoe, who lost the title when he had to pit for fuel five laps from the finish because Franchitti ran a different fuel strategy than the other two title contenders.

"As a team, any time you win the Indianapolis 500 it's a good year. To have a chance to win the championship in the last race, sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't." -- Team Penske president Tim Cindric, referring to Helio Castroneves' third Indy 500 win in May and Ryan Briscoe's near-championship in IndyCar.

"They have something magical about the final 10 races. These 10 tracks really suit them. They do an incredible job. What else can you say? They're the best out there. They've won the last three championships. They're going to be hard to beat for this one. Really, unless they make a mistake, I don't see how they lose it." -- Jeff Gordon on teammate Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team on their way to a fourth-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

While Miami is known for its warm weather and sunny climate, this past weekend the temperatures were so hot and the humidity so high, it was hell-like. So after getting barbecued like a Boston Butt Pork Shoulder in 97-degree heat at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it's a chance to cool off at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., as NASCAR's "Chase for the Championship" hits the halfway mark. Saturday night's 500-mile race under the lights should be much cooler than the South Florida swampland, and the race should play a key role in determining how the rest of the Chase plays out. The fact it's 25 miles from my house, it's nice to cover a race without going to an airport to get there.

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