“I got to know Marino first, and I felt like getting to know Marino, they can’t be too different,” Johnson said. “If I can connect with Marino, then I can connect with Dario. And I wanted to, I rooted for Dario before I knew him. I’d watched him for a lot of years, and I always appreciated his passion and the way he carried himself.
“Dario’s always been that guy for me in open-wheel.”
Despite different backgrounds _ Johnson grew up in Southern California, Franchitti in Scotland _ the two both ooze cool, and they have an appreciation for the finer things in life. Johnson married former model Chandra Janway, Franchitti is married to actress Ashley Judd. But in racing, both are lauded for their on-track accomplishments and off-track professionalism.
“I like the way Jimmie goes racing. I like the way he controls the car, and the ways he just has two sides,” Franchitti said. “What he does on track is just phenomenal, but I also like the way he conducts himself off the track. We have similar attitude in that regard.
“And the fact that he won five championships in a row, I think it says a lot about him. To find the motivation to win two or three, but then to go and do five and still be hungry for more, it’s unbelievable. He one of racing’s good guys. One of the best on and off the track.”
Franchitti got to see it firsthand in 2008, when he left IndyCar for NASCAR. He’d won his first Indy 500 and series championship the year before, and slid over to stock cars for a new challenge. It was a short-lived experiment for Franchitti, who broke his ankle in an accident at Talladega and ultimately fell victim to the economic downturn and sponsorship woes.
Franchitti ran just 10 Cup races _ his best finish was 22nd _ before team owner Chip Ganassi pulled the plug because of the sponsorship issues.
“I went in there with my eyes somewhat closed, I should have done my homework and driven the car before I went,” Franchitti said. “With the Cup car, I struggled to get the hang of what the car needed to drive it. It was difficult to adapt to, and I think it would have taken a bit more time. I’d ask Jimmie what do you do here? And he’d tell me, and I’d think `I can’t do what you do.’”
Franchitti doesn’t regret giving it a try, and points out he wouldn’t have been able to return the next year to IndyCar with Ganassi, where he’s won another Indy 500 and three consecutive championships, if he hadn’t partnered with the team owner for the NASCAR ride.
“I was also able to learn some things about myself; all of a sudden I was running nowhere near what I was used to, and I had to dig deep for any sort of performance,” he said. “I had to take some lumps along the way, it made me a bit stronger. And I realized I didn’t get thrill from it that I get from driving IndyCar.”
Johnson hasn’t had a chance to try IndyCar, and a promise to his wife not to race anything that lacks a roof has stalled his dream of ever running the Indy 500. But he is hopeful that he can one day at least experience an Indycar in a closed-course test.
“There is a void there, and Dario has been helpful and encouraging for me to come give it a shot,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of friends in the sport, they’ve always talked about it, and I would love that chance. I grew up wanting to be an IndyCar driver.”
Should Johnson ever get into an IndyCar, Franchitti wants to be present “just to see Jimmie’s face after the first few laps.” Beyond that, he thinks both he and Johnson will be just fine with their current jobs.
“I am back in IndyCar doing what I should be doing and what I want to be doing,” Franchitti said. “We’re both doing exactly what we should be doing.”
And in a sense, they get to live vicariously through each other. Johnson was criticized last year for saying IndyCar should abandon ovals following the death of Dan Wheldon in an accident at Las Vegas, but the many active drivers he knows understood his comments were out of concern for his friends.