As we move into another IndyCar race week, the individual listed as dead last in IndyCar points is one extremely unfamiliar with those surroundings. Yes, Dario Franchitti, your 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011 IndyCar champion, has had a start to his season to forget.
There was the mental flub exiting the pits in the St. Pete opener. Then there was a decent start to the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama before header issues ensured another early exit. Certainly the latter result can't be laid at the feet of Dario, but the end result is the same: Dario at the bottom of the standings, a whopping 69 points behind points leader Helio Castroneves.
Of course, one would expect no matter how the next two races go down, Dario will be a threat to win at Indianapolis, where he's among the best ever. And even champions can have off weeks and still win the IZOD IndyCar Series championship; Ryan Hunter-Reay shook off a disappointing P27 at Indy and a disastrous P24 at Mid-Ohio last season and still grabbed the title.
Yet here's the thing; Dario has never had a first two weeks of a championship year where he's finished worse than P7 in either of the first two races. Last year, where he seemed a bit off (finishing P7 in the standings overall), his first three results were a P13, P10, and a P15 at Long Beach. It would seem a hot start is a recipe for a Dario title, and that just hasn't happened this year.
So what can we expect from Dario at this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach? It's difficult to say. Dario won here in 2009, finished P12 in 2010, was on the podium in 2011, and finished the aforementioned P15 last year. It seems to be an even/odd sort of performance pattern for Franchitti when it comes to Long Beach.
Is Franchitti pushing too hard? Are the engine woes Chip Ganassi complained of affecting him? Does it have to do with not being completely comfortable in the braking setup with the DW12, or possibly even less tangible reasons? Ultimately, perhaps the best explanation is simply this: it only takes a couple of issues out of the hundreds or thousands of things that have to go right each week for an IndyCar driver to net a bad result. There's no overarching reason; it's death by paper cuts.
No, technically, it isn't too late for Dario Franchitti to join a title discussion that currently seems focused around Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and a few others. Yet as we head into Long Beach, no one can doubt the clock is indeed clicking. A win or podium would do much to potentially salvage his season; another poor result, early as it is, would likely be an indicator that a fifth title run is simply not in the cards.