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Franchitti poses with the Borg-Warner Trophy after he won his third Indianapolis 500. (JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS)
Franchitti poses with the Borg-Warner Trophy after he won his third Indianapolis 500. (JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS)

Motorsports

Franchitti back to his best after a tough start to the IndyCar season Add to ...

Ask anyone in the IndyCar paddock about championship contenders, and they’ll tell you not to forget about Dario Franchitti, no matter how bad things look for him.

Even early in the 2012 season when the four-time IndyCar champion struggled to get to grips with the new Dallara chassis, his rivals knew it was only a matter of time before they’d see the Ganassi driver moving up.

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“You can’t count him out,” said Penske’s Will Power, who finished as championship runner-up to Franchitti in the past two seasons.

“We saw in Long Beach, [Calif.] and São Paulo, [Brazil] in qualifying that he was back on the pace and he was starting to understand the new car – he’s a bloody quick driver.”

IndyCar adopted a new Dallara chassis this year, replacing another car produced by the Italian manufacturer that had been used for about a decade. While some drivers seemed to jump in the car and go fast instantly, Franchitti fought to bring the new chassis up to speed.

Some speculated that the Scotsman simply didn’t like the car’s handling characteristics, but he had a simpler explanation.

“I right foot brake, and I got two days in the car left foot braking because Dallara took so long to come up with a braking kit that I could use, so essentially all the pre-season testing was thrown out the window for me and that put us behind,” he said.

“And that was it and we struggled for the first three races, but in Brazil I think we got it. We have a good handle on the car, but it needs to be a complete package.”

Franchitti also dismissed the assertion that he just hasn’t been able to change his style to suit the new car. After moving from touring cars to the old Championship Auto Racing Teams (commonly known as CART) and then to IndyCar, learning a new car is something he’s done several times in his career.

“It used to be that we that we had to adapt to a different car every season, so that’s not the issue,” he said.

“It’s just finding out what we needed to change on the car to get it working, it’s as simple as that.”

Franchitti’s slow start found him outside the top 10 in points following the first three races. His fourth quickest time in qualifying for the race in Long Beach in early April signalled that Franchitti was back, even though contact with another car and then a mechanical failure ruined his race. Later in the month, he took his first top five finish of 2012 with a fifth on the streets of São Paulo, a result that moved him into 10th overall in points.

The No 10 Target Chip Ganassi driver scored his third Indianapolis 500 title a week ago before taking the runner-up spot behind his teammate Scott Dixon in the Detroit Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Scotsman is now at 176 points, tied for fourth overall with Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont. Penske’s Power leads with 232, 26 markers ahead of Ganassi’s Scott Dixon. Another Penske driver, Hélio Castroneves, is third with 177 points. Drivers get 50 points for a win.

Franchitti’s early struggles can also be attributed to the Honda motors in his car that simply couldn’t match the Chevrolets for power or fuel economy in the early going. The engine maker’s move to a new turbocharger seems to have fixed the power problem, while Honda also has upped its motor’s fuel efficiency.

One thing that has been in Franchitti’s favour is the fact that the introduction of the new chassis saw IndyCar allow more testing than it has in recent memory, which has also helped him catch up.

On the other hand Franchitti’s teammate, Dixon, shot out of the gate and continues to be a title favourite. The second Ganassi driver won in Detroit and could have taken the chequered flag in the second race at Alabama’s Barber Motorsport Park if it weren’t for a botched final pitstop that handed the win to Power. In all, he has one win and three seconds in six starts this year.

“I feel like I am a little more numb to things I dislike, and Dario is very much about finesse and getting things right,” Dixon said.

“The style of the car seems to be more loose, especially on entry, where Dario particularly doesn’t like it, but I think they found some areas to make it better for him. I think the progression took a little longer but I think he was back on his A-game at Long Beach and Brazil – I knew it wouldn’t take long.”

And now that Franchitti can sniff the top of the points standings, there’s no reason to think he won’t be in the mix when the 2012 title is decided.

His strategy, with 10 of 16 races to go in the season, and a 56 point deficit to make up on the leader, is straightforward.

“The trick is not to become frustrated, the trick is to keep working at it and to keep pushing and trying to figure out the best way forward,” he said.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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