Dario Franchitti shifts gears by leaving his NASCAR foray to move back to the IndyCar Series, staying with Chip Ganassi Racing. The news of Dan Wheldon's departure came just days before his teammate Scott Dixon most likely will wrap up the 2008 championship.
"Part of the reason that I signed with Ganassi last year was because of how many options that Chip has at his disposal for a driver," Franchitti said of the switch. "You can do almost any form of racing that you want. With unification and the new schedule having more road and street courses it made me think about this more and more."
Chip Ganassi dropped the bombshell of Wheldon's departure and the signing of Franchitti for the 2009 season. Ironically, both racers earned their Indianapolis 500 wins and their IndyCar titles two years apart with the same team, Andretti Green Racing. Wheldon had his golden year in 2005 when the Brit and the Scot were teammates. Franchitti had his moment in the sun last year and in 2009 he will be behind the wheel of the No. 10 CGR IndyCar.
"It is going to be very exciting to have Dario in one of our IndyCars next year," Ganassi said. "I have always admired his competitive spirit when he raced against us and have really grown to see more of what he is about this season while he raced in NASCAR. When there was a possibility of an opening on our IndyCar team, the only person I thought about was Dario. This is going to be a great move for Dario and for our team."
Franchitti's NASCAR career ground to an abrupt halt earlier this season due to a lack of funding. He joined a fellow open-wheel expatriate and champion, Juan Pablo Montoya, in stock cars this season. Unfortunately the tides were rough and only once in ten Sprint Cup starts did Franchitti finish better than 32nd, a 22nd at the spring Martinsville event.
Wheldon's spot at Ganassi was rumored to be up for grabs prior to Tony Kanaan affirming his commitment to remain at Andretti Green Racing. "Dan Wheldon has done everything this organization has asked of him. He was competitive from the moment that he stepped into the car for us back in 2006 and has provided Target Chip Ganassi Racing many highlights over his three years with the team," said Ganassi. "Dan is a class act both on and off the track and we wish him nothing but the best."
To put it mildly, Franchitti's return is a surprise. Last year it appeared Franchitti's open-wheel days were finished. With two aerial shows and every possible career achievement accomplished, the rationale was that he had no more interest in competing in single-seaters and was ready to pursue a new challenge.
"I'm very excited to be coming back to the IndyCar Series," Franchitti said. "I have competed against the team (CGR) for I guess 10 or 11 years in open-wheel. I know how difficult they are to beat. I'm really looking forward to being a part of the team going forward and having Scott as a teammate."
Apparently a a desire to return to the series he left behind brings a former champion is back in the ranks. When he won his 2007 crown, his main rival for the title was Dixon. The two will be teammates in 2009.
"I think it's pretty cool. It's definitely pretty positive to have a teammate that's been very strong, very tough to beat, including last year where we came up just short," Dixon said. "I think it's going to be a huge influx for the team. I can just imagine everybody will be really excited. It's come at a tough time for everyone I think with the team, especially coming down to the championship, but it bodes well and looks absolutely fantastic for next season.
"I hope we can continue on with the success that the team's had. Definitely with a teammate like Dario, it's going to be all good things."
Wheldon did not let the grass grow below his driving shoes, on the same day, he announced his new ride for 2009 with Panther Racing.
"I want to personally thank Target and the whole Chip Ganassi Racing organization for the success and enjoyment we shared together. With that said, I will certainly miss my working relationship with Scott Dixon and wish him and the team all the best for this weekend at Chicagoland," Wheldon said.
Wheldon is back home where he started his IndyCar career and the news came just days before the series completes their 2008 calendar at the same track (Chicagoland) where Wheldon made his debut in 2002. Prior to his move to IndyCar, Wheldon competed in America in both the Atlantic Championship Series (2000) and the now-revived Indy Lights Series (2001).
"It's hard to describe the level of excitement and emotions all of us at Panther have knowing that Dan has come back to drive for us," team Managing Partner and CEO John Barnes said. "I remember watching him drive for the first time in the Indy Lights series years ago, and I knew he was going to be a special talent. Since then he's become one of the best open-wheel drivers in the world, and for him to make his return to our team at the height of his racing career is a tremendous compliment to our team. I know he's excited about getting into the No. 4 car for the first time and we've got a tremendous future ahead of us."
Wheldon nearly earned his second IndyCar title in 2006, he ended the season tied with Sam Hornish Jr. The crown went to Team Penske's Hornish Jr based on the number of race wins; he had one extra victory over his former 2002 Panther teammate.
"I'm very excited to be joining the entire Panther Racing crew," Wheldon said. "This is the place where I started my career in 2002 and with the personnel and leadership that John Barnes has put together, I know that we'll be fighting for outright victories, the Indianapolis 500 title and the league championship.
"I'm looking forward to when my obligations with my current team have been honored, so I can get with the entire Panther family and start moving towards all of our goals of winning races and championships together. It's great to be back."
Will there be more driver/team changes before 2009? Only time will tell but one racer now out of a ride is no doubt making plans for his future. With Wheldon in the No. 4 IndyCar with Panther Racing, Vitor Meira will run his last race for the team this coming Sunday at Chicagoland.