Tom Bowles
Thursday May 7th, 2009

Three years after the floodgates opened on an open-wheel NASCAR invasion, it appears the bleeding has finally stopped for the IRL. As the curtain rises on this year's Indy 500, Dario Franchitti finds himself running open-wheel after just one failed season attempting to transition into Sprint Cup. He joins Jacques Villeneuve, Sarah Fisher and Patrick Carpentier as recent examples of how success in one form of motorsports doesn't always translate somewhere else -- failures that make others wary of attempting to make the jump (Danica, are you listening?).

But before we label the "open-wheel" era an utter disaster, a funny thing's happened to the NASCAR converts who remain. It turns out that after years of struggling, patience is about to pay off for the trio of Sam Hornish, Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya. It may have taken a little longer than expected, but each one is finally getting the hang of Sprint Cup racing. And come Darlington this Saturday night, they're poised to remind us Indy's not the only place where open-wheelers are beginning to make some noise.

Of the trio, Hornish has put together the most impressive turnaround in just the last three weeks. After a disastrous 2008 that ended with a DNQ at Homestead and a runner-up finish in the Rookie of The Year race to Regan Smith, critics thought Hornish would slink back to the IRL along with Franchitti. Instead, the former open-wheel champ chose to rededicate himself to stock cars, opting to stay the course in NASCAR rather than replace Helio Castroneves during his tax evasion trial.

And while Hornish preached patience in public, Penske's decision to stick with the veteran in private -- not always easy considering the team's lackluster performance in '08 -- is beginning to pay off. With the new Dodge engine paying dividends across the board, extra horsepower combined with better car control has started to put the sophomore back on track. It took 44 starts for Hornish to snag his first top 10 at the Cup level -- a ninth at Phoenix in April -- but just two weeks later, he grabbed his second. A career-best sixth at Richmond last Saturday made it clear something is starting to click for the No. 77 Dodge.

"I am so proud to look at the progress compared to where we were as a newly-constructed team just a year ago," he said this week. "I feel like I'm learning all the time."

As for the 'Dinger, lessons learned over the past 12 months were more about life than on-track performance. Pushed aside at Team Red Bull despite slow but steady improvement, A.J. latched on to Gillett-Evernham Motorsports at the end of last season with no guarantee of a ride in '09. Initially signed for just eight races, his future hung in the balance heading into this year's Daytona 500, a race he had failed to qualify for in his first two attempts. But after squeaking in, 'Dinger scored a surprising third-place finish in the Great American Race -- the key to a strong start that's allowed him to secure sponsorship at least through Richmond in September.

Add in a ninth-place finish at Martinsville, and the 'Dinger has two top 10s in 2009 -- matching his previous career total in just 10 starts. While an up and down season's left him 28th in points, it's clear that he fits in well at newly-named Richard Petty Motorsports, where he's developing a close relationship with none other than the King himself. And just like Hornish, the key for 'Dinger's improvement continues to be one thing and one thing only: experience.

"The big thing is just getting track time," he said upon joining the team this year. "Last year, obviously, I had a difficult start, but really got on a rhythm and got a good momentum going. Didn't want to switch to join Evernham at the end of last year."

"[But] I had a lot of confidence in myself over the last couple of races that I had. That just carried over."

Allmendinger's so confident in his NASCAR future that he signed a contract extension with RPM through 2010, spurning a possible opportunity to drive for the new U.S.-based team in Formula One.

And then, there's Montoya, the only recent convert to win in Cup (Infineon -- 2007) but a man who'd struggled with consistency his first two years on the circuit. After losing Texaco as a sponsor at the end of 2008, Montoya's car owner, Chip Ganassi, was forced to merge with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to stay afloat. The switch from Dodge to Chevy could have been a difficult transition; instead, the team has benefited from better engines and consolidating its financing with higher-paying sponsor Target. Clicking off three top-10 finishes in 10 races -- matching his total from all of 2008 -- Montoya is 14th in points and a bona fide Chase contender. Just 35 points behind 12th place Matt Kenseth, he still has his three best tracks ahead of him in Indianapolis' 2.5-mile oval and the road courses of Infineon and Watkins Glen.

Of course, the three still go through some growing pains -- Hornish turned Marcos Ambrose at Richmond while Montoya was involved in the start of a big wreck at Talladega one week before -- but by and large, their future in NASCAR is suddenly secure. In the process, the trio has shared what appears to be a simple but forgotten concept in a "win now" series these days: enough patience from owners to allow them to develop.

In the old days, it often took stock car rookies three or four years to align themselves with top-tier equipment, but Tony Stewart's rookie success in 1999 (three wins) raised expectations for all Sprint Cup freshmen. Record-setting first-year marks by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman also ensued, and people started looking at a winless rookie campaign as a failure.

Wrecking more than winning these past three years, the open-wheelers certainly took their licks early and often. But in a pattern that should cause car owners and sponsors to take note, they've improved each and every year they've been given a chance to develop -- and now they're all in position to be successful. It makes you wonder what would have happened if Franchitti had stuck around another year or two ... and whether the long-term success of the others will eventually cause other open-wheelers to take a second look.

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