Early slump stalls Franchitti’s march up wins list

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“To sit here and come up with a bunch of excuses _ I don’t want to do that,” Franchitti said. “It really just comes down to me getting comfortable with the balance of the car.”

His peers consider Franchitti a finesse driver who spends the opening days of a race weekend perfecting the car setup, then taking it out for what seems like a causal Sunday drive.

“He’s a good, tough competitor,” said Will Power, runner-up to Franchitti the last two seasons. “He’s very good at his job and hard to beat.”

But Power is among those who have publicly marveled at what they consider an unbelievable streak of luck that has given Franchitti finishes and wins he maybe didn’t earn. Perhaps, but it takes a lot more than luck to win two Indianapolis 500s and championships in four of the last five seasons.

“He came over here, and immediately he was a factor,” said Mario Andretti, who ranks second on the all-time list with 52 victories. “He’s been a factor ever since. He wins races and championships, and you don’t win championships over and over just being lucky. He’s a great person, very intelligent, a sophisticated guy, and you can talk to him about politics, you don’t have to talk racing.

“He’s absolutely the complete package.”

Although Franchitti won 10 races in the former CART Series, his first championship didn’t come until 2007, a full 10 years after he’d joined the top level of American open-wheel racing. His younger brother, Marino, remembers the frustration of watching his brother fall short in his goals.

“I think I had unrealistic thoughts about what he should achieve. He was my big brother, and I always expected him to win,” Marino said. “And I could get quite upset if he didn’t win. But then 2007, he finally started to put it altogether. Since then, he’s achieved more than I thought was possible, and that’s because he works so hard.

“If he feels he has a weakness, he makes himself better through hard work. He thinks about it all the time. He thinks about motorsports all the time. It’s his job, and it’s what he loves.”

In all that time thinking, though, Franchitti insists he’s never considered his place in history. He grew up idolizing Andretti, Ayrton Senna, Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart and Gilles Villeneuve. Never did he imagine being mentioned in the same conversations as those racing greats.

Last season, a four-win campaign, saw Franchitti pass Helio Castroneves, Rodger Ward, Dixon, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears on the all-time wins list. His final win of the season, at Toronto in July, pushed him past Mears for ninth on the list.

He didn’t reflect on it then, and he hasn’t since.

“Rick Mears and I were talking once. He said `If you think you belong in the company of your heroes, there’s something wrong with you,’” Franchitti said. “I can’t argue with that. The numbers could be wherever they are on the list. But those guys are my heroes, and I just don’t think of myself as one of them.”

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