Dario Franchitti indulged in what has become a standard post-final race, post-season, post-championship celebration for race car drivers on South Beach Saturday night. Staring out into the Atlantic Ocean with a drink or three nearby and a few more in his system, the Scot had completed a journey from Indy Racing League star status and a first championship in 2007, to a humbling aborted season in NASCAR last summer, to the top of the IndyCar realm again with another crown.
It felt, in a word, right, and not just because of the race and championship trophies he'd hoisted after outlasting Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon and Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe in a last-race dash for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This was where he belonged all along, he thought, and the title was just validation. Though he admits he wanted that validation badly.
SI.com: This South Beach celebration thing has become a real trend since (three-time defending Sprint Cup champion) Jimmie Johnson started unwinding on the sand after winning titles, huh?
Dario Franchitti: Yeah, that one ran a little late. Nothing crazy, but it was fun. Jimmie actually texted me, gave me some advice on how to celebrate.
SI.com: People understate his celebration-capacity, don't they?
DF: (Laughs) Yes, indeed. He's a good man.
SI.com: You won the championship in the last two IndyCar seasons you've contested. Now what? Getting away from it all for awhile?
DF: I don't mind getting away. I really don't. There's a part in me that thinks with all this momentum we should keep going, but I really don't mind getting away. Think I'll go spend some time with [wife] Ashley [Judd] and go back to Scotland and spend some time with friends and family there. I think I'll take a couple of weeks off and then I'll get back in the gym and keep working.
SI.com: Not discounting the strategy involved, or skill, but is it more disconcerting with a title coming down to vapors of fuel since that was involved with your 2007 title, too? Don't you just want to have a full tank, no worries and a heavy foot?
DF: You do [want to jam it and go]. You definitely do. But it's about getting the result and using everything you've got in your powers to get that result. And on Saturday that was our way to do that: through fuel mileage. I think from the first pit stop on we were able to run a pace with Ryan and Scott but there wasn't any point, because we knew the best way -- we felt -- to win the race was to do what we did. Ryan and Scott absolutely drove their hearts out as well, but we were focused on the end result. There's time this year where felt we lost some races because of strategy. It was nice to get one.
SI.com: How odd was the team dynamic with you and Scott Dixon each vying for the title in the final race?
DF: It was definitely a different situation. At [Andretti Green Racing] in '04, Tony [Kanaan] was clearly our bet for the championship from midseason so we all supported him. In '05 it was a similar situation with Dan [Wheldon]. I think Tony, myself and Dan were all very competitive, but Dan had maybe a run of the luck and got himself in a position to win the championship and we all supported Dan. In '07, I was in the position and I was supported by Tony, Marco [Andretti], Danica [Patrick].
So to come to Homestead this year was a different situation because Dixie and I were both in the championship fight, and I think we handled it well. We both worked together in getting the best out of our cars in testing, and all day Friday and Saturday we went out there and we did the best we could for ourselves, but at the same time keeping an eye on our teammates. It wouldn't have been good when Scott passed me about 10 laps if I had I just kept my foot down and driven up into him or something.
It's one of those things about having a teammate like Scott. He's going to be competitive and you're going to have to show up with your 'A' game. And with the series coming together and me being gone for a year, the competition is that much tighter and you have to improve every week. That makes me even happier about our circumstances.
SI.com: Were there any friendly wagers?
DF: No. But me and Ryan and Dixie decided among ourselves beforehand that whatever happened, we would go out and have a beer Saturday night, and we managed to do that. And that was cool. It's a funny situation, because you're out there racing these guys. Dixie has become a very good friend of mine and Ryan is a guy I really like.
SI.com: How validating was it to win the title after a frustrating NASCAR experience last year?
DF: Definitely. After the hardships of last year, to be able to come back and to be competitive right off the bat, that was a bit of a big deal for me, definitely.
SI.com: When did you know that you were going to be able to pick IndyCar back up and continue at a high level? And do you even need those little reassurances at this point?
DF: The first time I tested the car, we tested down in Houston at a small road course and the first 20 laps I did were not really flowing. And then it started to come back. And as it started to come back, I knew I'd been missing this and this was what I should be doing. That was the point. I was, "Shoo, this is good."
SI.com: Hypothetical, because drivers love them: Team owner Chip Ganassi offers you a one-off in a Nationwide car in a week the IndyCar series is idle. Do you do it?
DF: No. No. I enjoyed the Nationwide side of things because we had such a hard time in Cup and in Nationwide we qualified on the pole, in the top 10, led a bunch of laps. That was the fun part to do because we were somewhat competitive against a majority of Cup guys, and that was good. But I'm loving doing IndyCars. It is what I love to do. I want to keep focusing on that and I want to keep doing that as long as I can be competitive and enjoy it.
SI.com: Is the perception changing among open wheel drivers that the grass is still greener in NASCAR?
DF: I think the reason people go over there is they want that different. That's why I went over. I've been lucky enough to be paid pretty well to do IndyCar. The thrill of driving another car is why Dixie and I drive the Grand Am car and at Daytona I drive the ALMS car with the Highcroft guys. That was the main reason.
With the unification, I think that has been a big deal as well for IndyCar. People race IndyCars because they realize that's what they love to do. Sam [Hornish Jr.], for instance, wanted to try something different and wanted to do NASCAR and it worked for him, so good for Sam. Now that he's getting some seat time and some experience, he's showing what he can do.
SI.com: Requisite Danica Patrick question: Has she asked you about your NASCAR experience?
DF: Danica came to a couple races in '08. We're old friends. [She and her husband Paul [Hospenthal] and I sat and tossed about different aspects of it. She's asked a couple questions this year. I hope she stays in the IndyCar series, but she's definitely doing her homework on NASCAR.
SI.com: Now that open wheel racing is unified in North America under one banner, what's the next step to further its growth?
DF: It's a tough question because in some ways that's really not my job, but I think three people going for the championship down to the final race in a winner-take-all situation, that competition is pretty good. And the rules are so tight now. I was amazed we were able to lap the field, the three of us on Saturday. I think we just do it right, the setups.
Unification was the first step on an upward trajectory, I see. After that it was going down every year, fighting for survival. Unification was the first turn to the upside, to going up slowly. I think the biggest worry right now is TV. They have to sort that out. Versus did a great job and they have to sort out the DirectTV thing. They need to get their heads together and figures this out or they need to do something else because we need to get the ability to get back to a lot of households.
SI.com: Ok, now it's the offseason. Enjoy.