HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dario Franchitti raced in America for more than a decade before he won an Indy car championship.
Now he's effectively won three consecutive titles.
The 37-year-old Scotsman competed in the CART-sanctioned Indy car series from 1997 through 2002, winning 10 races but contending for a championship only in 1999, when he lost out on a tiebreaker to Juan Pablo Montoya.
Since he switched to the Izod IndyCar Series in 2003, Franchitti's fortunes have improved. After winning the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and series championship while driving for Andretti Green Racing, he embarked on a new career challenge, attempting to break into NASCAR with Chip Ganassi Racing.
A lack of sponsorship and a lack of seat time (not helped by a broken ankle suffered in a Nationwide Series accident at Talladega Superspeedway) ended Franchitti's foray into NASCAR after less than half a season. But Chip Ganassi realized that his erstwhile stock car driver missed open-wheel racing and offered Franchitti a chance to take over the Target-sponsored No. 10 Indy car.
The results have been spectacular. Over the past two years, a rejuvenated Franchitti has won nine races and the past two IndyCar Series championships. An eighth-place finish in the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway was enough to overcome the 12-point deficit to Team Penske's Will Power he faced entering the 2010 season finale.
Franchitti led most of the first half of the Homestead race to clinch the crucial bonus point for leading the most laps, then drove conservatively to the finish after Power crashed out of the event.
"It would have been nice to find our way back up front again but we wanted to win the big prize tonight," Franchitti said.
No one in Indy car racing's current era is better at clinching the deal than Franchitti, who has come from behind in the final race to clinch all three of his IndyCar Series championships. At an age when most drivers start to show signs of losing their will or their skill, Franchitti is better than ever.
"Right now you'd have to say that he's at his peak," said Scott Dixon, Franchitti's teammate at Ganassi Racing for the past two years. "They say that about triathletes -- your mid-30s are kind of your peak.
"He's getting close to 40, so he's stretching the window. I think the determining factor for a lot of people when they get to that age is if they have the will to do it, and whether they want to get up and train and do those things and make it worthwhile. And you can still see the fire in Dario -- he's an extremely competitive person."
Added Dixon: "I think it's good for a lot of us guys that have been around for a while. Because it at least gives the team owners some hope that we can still continue to do it."
Franchitti's trump card this year was his versatility. While Power was almost unbeatable on road racing venues, Franchitti was a competitive road racer who also won the A.J. Foyt trophy for being IndyCar's top oval racer.
"I think Japan [where Franchitti finished second to Helio Castroneves] was possibly one of the most aggressive and trouble-free and mistake-free races I've ever driven -- probably in the top five races I've ever driven in my life," Franchitti said. "If I can keep operating at that level, who knows? I'm just loving it."
The fact that the once-oval-exclusive IndyCar Series races on all kinds of tracks -- road and street courses as well as short ovals, superspeedways and Indianapolis -- has played right into Franchitti's hands.
"He knows what it takes to win a championship from the first race, and that's a big advantage," Ganassi said. "And he's good at all the types of circuits we go to."
When a gearbox failure at Iowa Speedway appeared to knock Franchitti out of championship contention, he didn't panic. And when he entered the final four oval races 59 points down to Power, he simply set to work.
"That [Iowa] took a lot of points away, and from then on it was a real struggle," Franchitti said. "But nobody on the Target team gave up. At no point did I freak out. I was very aware that I might not win the championship. But that was it. I just looked at it as an obstacle and see if we could catch him [Power] again.
"The team, they just buckled down, every single person. And we find ourselves here again tonight."
With three IndyCar-sanctioned championships, Franchitti has matched Sam Hornish Jr.'s record. He still has some work to do to catch up to Sebastien Bourdais (four CART/Champ Car crowns), Mario Andretti (three USAC and one CART title) and Foyt (seven USAC titles).
But after his ultimately unsuccessful flirtation with NASCAR, Franchitti realizes his home is Indy car racing. And given his form the past few years, it's not inconceivable he could leapfrog Andretti and Bourdais, if not challenge Foyt's mark.
After he won Indy in May, I wrote a column suggesting that Franchitti was one of the top Indy car racers in the modern era, which I define from 1979 to present. With another title in the bag, that assessment is more accurate than ever.
"Looking back to the start of 2007, I hadn't won a championship," Franchitti said. "I won a lot of races, but not a championship or Indy 500. Now we find ourselves with two 500s and three championships.
"So I think I'm just going to let it sink in, enjoy it. But I'm very proud of the achievement. That feeling of success is great."