Franchitti chasing IndyCar title

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JOLIET, Ill. (AP) -- When drivers talk about the ups and downs of life in racing, they don't use phrases such as "lowest low" lightly -- not with real danger lurking around every turn.

So when viewed in the proper context, spending last year spinning his wheels in NASCAR isn't a big deal to Dario Franchitti.

"I've had, certainly, worse times in racing, losing friends and things like that," Franchitti said. "Compared to that, last year was a walk in the park."

That said, Franchitti is glad to be back in IndyCar -- and back in championship contention.

"I'm where I should be, I think," Franchitti said. "At the end of '07, I needed to try something, I needed a break. But this is what I grew up doing. This is what I love doing. And I'm enjoying it, man. I'm really, really enjoying it."

After winning last week's race on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., Franchitti enters Saturday night's race at Chicagoland Speedway second in the series standings.

He trails championship leader Ryan Briscoe by only five points after Briscoe earned a bonus point for winning the pole position in qualifying Friday afternoon.

At least one fellow driver believes Franchitti can pull off a title run after spending the racing equivalent of a year in the wilderness.

"I guess I'd have to go with Dario," Danica Patrick said. "I think he's just so happy this year and he's happy to be back and having a good time, and his emotions seem so positive. He just seems like he's having fun. I guess I'll put my money on Dario."

After winning the Indianapolis 500 and the series championship for Andretti Green Racing in 2007, Franchitti packed up his helmet and firesuit to take a shot at NASCAR with Chip Ganassi's team.

Despite a great deal of fanfare for the arrival of the dashing Scottish driver and his and celebrity wife, actress Ashley Judd, Franchitti didn't find much success on the track.

Franchitti had a series of up-and-down results that included a broken foot in a crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Then Ganassi had to disband Franchitti's team because Ganassi couldn't find corporate sponsorship to back the team.

It was a difficult year for Franchitti, but he said he doesn't regret trying to make the jump to NASCAR.

"It was the right thing to do," Franchitti said. "It was something I wanted to try. I really have no regrets about it. I wish I'd known more going in, and I wish I might have understood more what I was getting into. I might have changed a few things. But no, no regrets."

Franchitti said he didn't have a hard time dealing with the disappointment.

"I've been doing this since I was 10 years old," Franchitti said. "So you learn over years of racing, of success and disappointment, how to handle these things, whether it's good or bad. And I think over the past two years, we've really experienced the highest high and pretty close to the lowest low. You just deal with it."

If he second-guesses himself on anything, it's that he didn't fully grasp how difficult, or nuanced, the transition might be.

"A lot of experienced drivers said at the time, 'You know, this is all different.' I was like, 'Yeah, yeah,"' Franchitti said. "But it really was. It would be a very similar situation of one of the top guys over there were to come over here. It's a completely different world."

Such as?

"Everything," Franchitti said. "The way the car was running, the competitiveness of the team, when you get in the car, the feedback the car's giving you, how to set the car up. All that stuff was completely different."

Ganassi got Franchitti back in the more familiar feeling of an IndyCar ride this season as a teammate to Scott Dixon, who won the Indy 500 and the series championship last season. Franchitti knew he would be with a top team, but there were no guarantees he would be able to pick up where he left off.

"With the job that Scott did last year, the team is a championship-caliber team," Franchitti said. "I wasn't sure I was going to get right back up to speed. I hoped I would. And it turned out to be the case, so that's good."

And now he likes his chances at another championship.

"We're in it," Franchitti said. "We're in the fight. We'll see what happens. We've been put in this position by winning races, and we're going to keep pushing."