Franchitti returning to IndyCar; replacing Wheldon at Ganassi

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. --Dario Franchitti is returning to the IndyCar Series after a fruitless one-year effort in NASCAR. The 2007 Indianapolis 500 winner and '07 IndyCar Series champion will move over to Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, replacing Dan Wheldon, who has been signed by Panther Racing, the team he made his IndyCar Series debut with six years ago.

Franchitti will pair up with Scott Dixon on the two-car IndyCar team. Dixon can win this year's IndyCar Series championship with a finish or eighth-place or better in the final race of the season Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

"Part of the reason that I signed with Ganassi last year was because of how many options that Chip has at his disposal for a driver," Franchitti said. "You can do almost any form of racing that you want. With unification and the new schedule having more road and street courses, it made me think about this more and more. I have really enjoyed this last season in stock cars and have not completely closed that chapter of my professional career, but the opportunity that arose was just something I could not pass up."

Franchitti has over 180 starts in CART and IndyCar with 18 wins, 17 poles, 63 top-five and 95 top-10 finishes (1997-2007). He is the winningest British driver in U.S. open-wheel history. He was part of the winning Rolex 24 at Daytona team this year for Ganassi and also captured the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring in the LMP2 Class in his first ever American Le Mans Series start in 2007. This creates a team that will have the last two Indy 500 winners as they take the green flag next year in St. Petersburg.

"It is going to be very exciting to have Dario in one of our IndyCars next year," team owner Chip Ganassi said. "I have always admired his competitive spirit when he raced against us and have really grown to see more of what he is about this season while he raced in NASCAR. When there was a possibility of an opening on our IndyCar team, the only person I thought about was Dario. This is going to be a great move for Dario and for our team."

Wheldon's departure should come as no surprise after Ganassi tried to hire Tony Kanaan to replace the driver from Emberton, England, last month. Kanaan nearly made the move but stayed at his current team, Andretti Green Racing, signing a five-year contract extension.

After that, Wheldon knew his time at Ganassi was coming to an end even after driving Ganassi's car to two victories in 2008.

By joining Panther Racing, Wheldon replaces Vitor Meira, who was told earlier this week that Sunday's race at Chicagoland would be his last one with the Panther team. Wheldon began his IndyCar career with Panther in 2002 before joining AGR in 2003. He won both the 2005 Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series titles with Andretti Green Racing before moving over to Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

"I'm very excited to be joining the entire Panther Racing crew," Wheldon said. "This is the place where I started my career in 2002 and with the personnel and leadership that John Barnes has put together, I know that we'll be fighting for outright victories, the Indianapolis 500 title and the league championship. I'm looking forward to when my obligations with my current team have been honored so I can get with the entire Panther family and start moving towards all of our goals of winning races and championships together. It's great to be back."

Wheldon signed with the team in June 2002 under a testing agreement. It was later the same year, at Chicagoland, that Wheldon made his debut for Panther, finishing 10th. He also started at Texas Motor Speedway and finished 15th despite not even making a qualification attempt.

"It's hard to describe the level of excitement and emotions all of us at Panther have knowing that Dan has come back to drive for us," Panther Managing Partner and CEO John Barnes said. "I remember watching him drive for the first time in the Indy Lights series years ago, and I knew he was going to be a special talent."

Wheldon has 15 IndyCar Series victories; five Poles, 54 top 5 and 72 top 10 finishes in his 96 starts in the league. His 15 wins rank him third all-time in IndyCar Series history, and his 2,735 laps led are the third most in the history of the series.