Dario Franchitti is back where he belongs, in thick of IndyCar championship battle

Dario Franchitti is back with a vengeance.

The veteran driver has made a triumphant return to the IndyCar Series after his ill-fated venture into NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stock car racing which, at this time last year, already had ended prematurely.

In this year's IndyCar championship battle Franchitti is only 20 points behind leader Scott Dixon, the reigning titleholder and Franchitti's teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, as the series arrives for Sunday's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at curvy Infineon Raceway.

"I'm excited to be back," Franchitti, 36, said Friday. "Going away made me realize how much I missed doing this. This is a perfect place for me to race."

Qualifying for the race is today. Franchitti (pronounced fran-KEE-tee) has won three times this season, including the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April, which turned out to be a birthday present for his wife, actress Ashley Judd.

Only Dixon has more wins this year -- four -- including last week's race on the Mid-Ohio circuit in Lexington, Ohio. And Dixon, who won at Infineon in 2007, remains the man to beat with four races left in the IndyCar season.

His closest pursuer in the title chase is Ryan Briscoe of Penske Racing, who is only three points behind in second, followed by Franchitti in third.

Penske's Helio Castroneves, the defending winner at Infineon and this year's Indianapolis 500 winner, is a distant fourth, 101 points behind.

And the popular Danica Patrick, who drives for Andretti Green Racing, is 139 points behind Dixon, in fifth.

Franchitti, a Scottish driver of Italian descent, followed Juan Pablo Montoya and other open-wheel racing stars and jumped to NASCAR after coming off a storybook 2007 season. Franchitti won the Indy 500 that year and then the series championship on the last lap of the final race when a hard-luck Dixon ran out of fuel at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

But after joining Ganassi's NASCAR team for 2008, Franchitti broke his ankle early in the season and then Ganassi shut down the team because of sponsorship problems.

The disappointment in NASCAR was "something you learn with this sport," Franchitti said.

"To be successful you can't get too low when it's down there, and you don't get too excited" when things go well, he said. "You've got to keep a very balanced outlook."

After losing his NASCAR Sprint Cup ride, Franchitti continued to compete in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series last year, but then he returned to the IndyCar Series.

And Franchitti proved again that he's competitive on both the series' oval tracks and its curvy road courses.

Besides his win on the streets of Long Beach, he also won this year's race on the Iowa Speedway oval in June, and on the streets of Toronto in July.

But he has his work cut out in Sunday's 75-lap race on the 12-turn, 2.3-mile Infineon course, formerly known as Sears Point, which is nestled in the hills of Northern California wine country and features sharp changes in elevation along with its many turns.

Franchitti has not won at Sonoma since the IndyCar Series added the track to its schedule in 2005, but Dixon has won here, along with Castroneves.

"It's a challenge, this place," Franchitti said. "It really is one of the tougher places we race."



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