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'Mr. Judd' no longer Franchitti carves his own identity

For the sports fan who may not be an auto racing fan, or even some auto racing fans who might not be open wheel racing fans, if they've known one thing about Dario Franchitti, it's this: he's the driver married to Ashley Judd.

Not this year.

Franchitti is certainly still married to the Hollywood starlet, but nowadays he's the one getting all the headlines. The Scotsman arrived at Watkins Glen International this weekend as this year's Indianapolis 500 champion, winner of three IndyCar races this season -- including the last two -- and a 65-point lead for the season championship.

"I think it's a shame that people keep relating him to Ashley because he's one of the top athletes in the world," Tony Kanaan, Franchitti's teammate and good friend, said Friday in between practices for Sunday's Camping World Watkins Glen Grand Prix. "I don't think it's fair to him, but he's been proving that he can be Dario Franchitti and not Ashley Judd's husband."

Even in the aftermath of Franchitti winning open wheel's biggest race, a newspaper story just two weeks ago read: "Franchitti probably remains most famous for his 2001 marriage to American actress Ashley Judd."

"I think that people that say stuff like that are probably misguided and don't really know anything about racing," said Franchitti, who is of Italian descent but was born and raised in Scotland. "So I don't put much stock in what they write."

His success is helping him establish himself to sports fans that are even familiar with seeing his wife on Sportscenter. Judd has been featured more than a few times at Kentucky basketball games, screaming from the student section in support of her alma mater. One sportscaster referred to Franchitti this year as "Mr. Ashley Judd," a phrase which Friday brought up 652 hits on

Franchitti is a low-key, softspoken personality on a team that includes the colorful Kanaan as well as media-buzzing up-and-comers Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti. But the Scottish burr he speaks with becomes more pointed when it comes to who he is married to -- partly because he never brings it up.

"For me, it's always about the racing," he said. "Because I'm a private person outside of racing. And I like to be known for being a racing driver. That's what I do. That's what I love to do."

This year he has been excelling at that job. Entering this season, he had won four career IndyCar races since joining the series in 2002. His last win was at California in October 2005, the same season he achieved his best point finish (fourth). Last year, he finished in the middle of the pack in points (eighth).

He started the season with a seventh place at Homestead-Miami, but that's been his worst finish all year. He moved to third in the points after the rain-shortened Indy 500, a win that had a very Hollywood ending as a soaked Judd ran through the rain to greet her husband. Franchitti followed with a second at Milwaukee, fourth at Texas and wins on short tracks at Iowa and Richmond.

"We can definitely claw it back," two-time defending Glen winner Scott Dixon, who is second in points, said of Franchitti's lead. "But we need to start doing that now, or else it's going to be too late."

Sunday's race (qualifying is this afternoon) on the 11-turn, 3.37-mile historic road course is the series' 10th of 17 events, with four of the remaining eight races on road or street courses. Although all seven of his IndyCar wins have come on ovals, Franchitti grew up on road courses earned nine of his 10 CART series wins at road/street events from 1998-2002.

In Friday morning's practice, he spun in Turn Eight but sustained no damage and went on to record what would stand as the fourth-fastest lap of the day. A third straight win, which would tie a series record shared by Kenny Brack (1999) and Dan Wheldon (2005) -- both of whom accomplished the feat during championship seasons.

"They have a strong team and they've been very consistent, and consistency is the key to win this championship," said Kanaan, who won the title in 2004. "Right now he has everything to win this championship."

But Franchitti has been loathe to start any title talk, almost needing to be coaxed into discussing how great his season is going. Part of that is due to his 2005 season, in which he and his team seemed to do everything right -- except win races.

"I'm not taking it for granted in any way, shape or form," he said. "And I'm really enjoying it, and I don't think anybody on our team has taken it for granted. Because we've been on the other side of it, and we know how quickly things can change."


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