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Franchitti returns in three-way musical chairs.

Dario Franchitti's coy response to questions about whether he would replace Dan Wheldon at Target Chip Ganassi Racing next season was appropriate, for it took just 48 hours for the reigning IndyCar Series champion to be confirmed as the new incumbent of the #10 machine.

When cornered at Belle Isle, Franchitti only appeared an outsider to join 2008 champion-elect Scott Dixon in the Ganassi line-up next season, insisting that a lot rode on the fate of the #41 NASCAR team he left open-wheel racing to join this year. However, with just one round remaining in the current campaign - and the title again going down to the wire at Chicagoland Speedway - the Scot has been confirmed alongside the man he beat to last year's crown.

"It is going to be very exciting to have Dario in one of our IndyCar Series cars next year," team owner Chip Ganassi admitted, "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 Series team, the only person I thought about was Dario. This is going to be a great move for Dario and for our team."

Wheldon's position in the team has been in question for some time, especially when it was revealed that Ganassi was courting another former champion, Tony Kanaan, for 2009. When those talks became public knowledge, however, Andretti Green did enough to keep the Brazilian - but Wheldon was not immediately confirmed as Dixon's team-mate for next season, amid rumours that the Briton was opposing a pay cut he would have to take to remain on board.

Again, Wheldon has kept his counsel over the past few weeks, leaving few aware that he was looking at pastures new for 2009, notably Panther Racing, where he began his IndyCar career with a couple of outings in 2002.

"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 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 #4 car for the first time, and we've got a tremendous future ahead of us."

The #4 machine, of course, is currently being piloted by Vitor Meira, and it appears that IndyCar's unluckiest man is going to be looking for a ride in 2009, despite playing a major part in Panther's return from the brink of extinction just a couple of years ago. Now 92 races into his IRL career without a win, the likeable Brazilian continues to challenge for podium finishes at the majority of venues, but has now been deemed surplus to requirements at Panther. Wheldon, by contrast, has 15 victories, 54 top five finishes and a championship title to show for his 96 IndyCar Series starts.

"I have enjoyed these last three seasons with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, but 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."

Barnes has said that he is not compeletely casting Meira aside, but would need to find sufficient sponsorship to continue running the Brazilian - who says he has other opportunities to explore - in a second entry next season. The team has also tested Britons Dillon Battistini, who set tongues wagging with his rookie season performance in the Indy Lights series, and GP2 frontrunner Mike Conway, who looks set to cross the Atlantic next year and apparently has plenty of offers on the table after an impressive Infineon Raceway outing.

Panther has confirmed that Wheldon will make his return to the team at the non-championship Surfers Paradise round, and it can be surmised that Franchitti will make his open-wheel return at the same time, unless Ganassi decides to use reigning Indy Pro Series champion Alex Lloyd, who he has been rumoured to be chasing sponsorship for for 2009.

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Andrew Long

September 04, 2008 12:31 PM

Dario may be indifferent but he's head and shoulders above the dross they have resigned in AGR for 2009 (Kanaan excepted). Putting the transition drivers aside - there are only say 5 drivers capable of winning the championship, a load of middling oval racers who have no idea about turning right and some mobile chicane pay-drivers. I would love to see some quality American drivers but they always seem to end up in Nascar. Shame really. Just hope that Rahal Jr can develop in 2009 and starts to win some races. Dario's move was always on the card - once Chip didn't get Kanaan it was obvious that Wheldon's days were numbered

sharla82 - Unregistered

September 03, 2008 4:36 PM

I think Ganassi will regret this. Dario proved to be good somedays and average the rest. Wheldon will struggle at Panther, Meira came close to wins but never had much luck. Its a shame they had to drop him

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