LONG BEACH-- After an ill-fated detour to NASCAR last year, Dario Franchitti returned to driving Indy cars this season with a bit of trepidation about whether his open-wheel racing skills had faded.
"I was worried that it wasn't going to come back," Franchitti recalled thinking before the season started, even though he had won both the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship in 2007.
In only the second race of the season, Franchitti won the 35th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on a hot Sunday afternoon after finishing fourth in the season opener two weeks earlier. Only two races and he's already atop the series championship standings.
The victory on the seaside streets of Long Beach also was the perfect birthday present for Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, who clapped and pumped her arms as he took the checkered flag.
"This is for her," Franchitti, 35, said in Victory Lane. "It was good to finally win here in Long Beach."
Pole-sitter and defending race winner Will Power finished second, noteworthy because the Australian was driving a new car for Team Penske and partly because he lost most radio communication with his crew around the 1.97-mile, 11-turn circuit.
Tony Kanaan was third and teammate Danica Patrick, who had started the race next-to-last in 22nd, was fourth.
"I'm real proud of how we all kept our heads down and made a (good) result out of it instead of getting down," Patrick said. "Probably my favorite part of the race was being able to hang there with Dario."
Helio Castroneves, racing only two days after being acquitted in a Miami court on federal tax-evasion charges, finished seventh for Penske.
"It was just so awesome to see the crowd giving me positive energy," said Castroneves, racing for the first time in six months. "This for me is therapy ... to forget what happened (in court). Now let's turn the page and move on."
Power had been driving Castroneves' car for Penske pending the outcome of Castroneves' trial and, after his acquittal Friday, Penske put Power in a new car.
As the race neared its end, Power tried to catch Franchitti but worried that he was low on fuel, forcing him to be conservative.
"I was saving (fuel) like you would not believe," Power said. "The car was there" and, if fuel hadn't been a problem, "we would have been on it."
But Franchitti discounted Power's threat, saying he wasn't pushing his own car to the limit. "If I had to go, trust me, there were another couple of seconds (of speed) in that car," he said.
Franchitti, who drives for the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, led 51 of the race's 85 laps. He also twice benefited from pitting early because, in both cases, caution periods soon followed and allowed him to stay in front while others pitted.
A Scottish driver of Italian descent, Franchitti switched to Ganassi's NASCAR team last year, following the lead of other open-wheel racers who tried their hand at stock-car racing. But Franchitti broke his ankle early in the season, and then Ganassi shut down his NASCAR team for lack of sponsorship.
"We both went through a pretty tough time last year," Franchitti said. "And for both of us that was very tough to swallow because we're used to such success."
So Franchitti returned to the IndyCar Series, not only because of his past success but because the series last year reunified with the other major U.S. open-wheel league, the Champ Car World Series.
That brought all of the sport's drivers together and added races such as Long Beach to the IndyCar schedule.
Back in the days of Champ Car's predecessor, CART, Franchitti twice had finished second at Long Beach in 1998 and 1999 -- both times to Ganassi cars.
"Nice to be on the other end of that today and get the job done," Franchitti said.
And when asked whether he expected to be this successful so soon after returning to Indy cars, Franchitti replied: "You can always hope, can't you?"
Franchetti Wins Long Beach IndyCar Series' Grand Prix
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