Brant James
Wednesday July 16th, 2008

It once seemed like America in microcosm, a high-banked land of opportunity where a hard-worker with a gleam in his eye and lead in his foot could make something of himself, where money and fame flowed like high-octane gasoline.

But NASCAR, like America, is ailing. Though still the pre-eminent form of motorsports in this country by any measure, the series and its teams have had to reassess their economic health for the present and future. Corporations that once poured money into sponsorships have become more guarded, teams struggle to find sponsorships, so drivers struggle to find and keep rides.

Open wheel drivers have noticed. Suddenly the infield grass doesn't seem greener on the other side of the catch fence anymore.

"You're always kind of thinking when you see those, first, incredible drivers, plus the series, it grew so much in the last 10, 15 years," said two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. "So, yes, you always see it as an option, but it depends on the time and the opportunity.

"IndyCar Series, no question about it, the merger, it makes more -- it seems to be going in the right direction. We seem to have a bright future ahead of us, and maybe the right opportunity for the IRL drivers and for the open-wheel series is to stay over here because it definitely is going to get better."

That point was starkly illustrated last week when Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates closed down the Sprint Cup program of Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy Racing League and Indianapolis 500 winner. He'd been lured away from Andretti Green Racing or possible retirement at age 34 by the enticement of a final new challenge. Now the challenge is to either find work or peace with the ungracious exit.

Though leaving NASCAR with an average finish of 34.6 in 10 starts will represent a failure, he could still retire and move on. Making a jump mid-career suddenly looks more risky for the scores who have and will try.

"As a driver you always look at it as the grass is always greener, but you definitely have to be very balanced with your decisions," said 2005 IndyCar and Indy 500 victor Dan Wheldon, who once lobbied to test stock cars for Ganassi after coming over from AGR. "From a driver standpoint, there are always teams that have positives and negatives but you have to evaluate them. If you fit somewhere, there might be downsides to it, but in the grand scheme it's not."

Though Wheldon said his pursuit of a stock car career did not progress much farther than being fitted for a carbon fiber seat and discussing some possible Nationwide Series tests that never happened, one because of rain, he created a stir in 2007. That's when he happened to be in Ganassi's suburban Charlotte, N.C., shop when the annual NASCAR media tour made its stop there. Ganassi said at the time "you'll see him give it a try this season," but decided to keep Wheldon, who is second all-time with 15 IRL wins, in his successful IndyCar program with two-time series champion Scott Dixon.

Ganassi eventually selected Franchitti for his next open wheel-to-stock car experiment when he wished to replace David Stremme this season. It appeared to be a snub at the time, but Wheldon, who had just finished second defending his championship, won't humor such thinking.

"I'm one of those people who think that things happen for a reason. For me not getting that ride ... it wasn't as close as everybody thought," Wheldon said."Chip and I had discussions and I'm also a believer that if Chip doesn't want you to do it, you don't want to go and do it against the owner's will. Everybody's got to want it to work, otherwise it won't."

Wheldon long said his desire to compete in NASCAR was a yearning for the big stage. But increased attendance and interest in the IndyCar series has apparently sated him, along with the promise of higher-profile venues like Toronto, Surfer's Paradise and Long Beach.

Castroneves is apparently satisfied with his IndyCar circumstances also after casually flirting with the idea of eventually testing himself in NASCAR. Earlier this year he set winning an IndyCar title as a prerequisite to ever making a serious attempt at a stock car career and he ruled it out for the "next few years" after re-signing with Penske recently.

"I'm definitely going to be in the IndyCar Series, and whatever happens in the future," said the 33-year-old.

The move could have been easier for Castroneves than most. Three-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. transitioned at owner Roger Penske's urging from his IndyCar program to the No. 77 Dodge Sprint Cup program, where he is 33rd in points and has a best finish of 13th as a rookie. With Newman officially leaving the No. 12 Dodge at the end of this season, ending a nine-year relationship, Castroneves could have had a ride waiting for him had Penske officials been willing to replace a veteran like Newman with another absolute beginner.

Perhaps it was worth it to Castroneves to stay anyway. Wheldon said while the current economic climate is not conducive to bold career moves, it makes consistent performers even more valuable.

"If you're proven and you have a good record ... teams need experience and they need people who aren't tearing up race cars," he said. "I think Chip has shown in the past, he's taken on some rookies which perhaps in the short-term cost him less money in terms of driver salary but in terms of accident damage and driving the team forward, it's just killed him. The year he had in 2005 and 2004 was just brutal. I think if you're experienced and you understand the cars well and use the knowledge to drive the team forward, you're worth your weight in gold."

Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IRL champion, is reportedly close to re-signing with AGR and Wheldon has agreed to terms to stay at Ganassi, all of which makes the IRL's job easier of promoting itself and improving its market share in its first season after reunification with the former Champ Car circuit. IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt said the league's attributes are beginning to help retain talent even though mid-level NASCAR drivers can earn far more than all but the elite in the IRL.

"We've always been very realistic. If money is the motivator -- and that is clearly the case with a lot of folks and that is absolutely no hard feelings -- typically more money can be made [in NASCAR]," he said. "I think our drivers are now asking themselves, 'Can I make a very good living here?' Yes. 'Is the length of schedule and kind of geography covered sort of a benefit?' Yes. And do they enjoy the speed and diversity and the fun factor of driving our cars? I think they do."

The recent flux of lettered drivers such as Franchitti, Hornish Jr., Indianapolis 500 winner and CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya -- who left a decaying Formula One situation with McLaren -- and former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve's as-yet unsuccessful attempt to launch a full-time program heightened the sense that open wheel racing and the IRL specifically was suffering a talent-drain. But NASCAR has long been a curiosity lure for open wheel drivers.

Former IRL champion Tony Stewart switched to Joe Gibbs Racing's stock cars in 1999 and has won two titles at NASCAR's highest levels, but none has made the switch as seamlessly. Montoya has perhaps come closest, winning Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series road course races as a rookie last season with Ganassi. He is the first former full-time, top-level open wheel driver to win a Cup race since Robby Gordon in 2003. He was the last since John Andretti in 1997. Montoya's Ganassi team continues to struggle and the 32-year-old Colombian is 20th in points. But he's fared better than many open wheel drivers with NASCAR aspirations.

Canadian Paul Tracy, 39, North American open wheel racing's actives wins leader (31) and a seeming natural for stock cars considering his penchant for rough-housing in the more fragile open wheel machines, languished in six Nationwide Series starts in 2006. He had been reduced to truck testing for Germain Racing until he was signed for a one-off deal with Walker Racing at the IRL event in Edmonton next weekend.

A.J. Allmendinger, who leveraged five Champ Car wins into a NASCAR deal with Red Bull Racing, has struggled to makes races and was replaced briefly this season by veteran Mike Skinner.

Villeneuve ran two Cup and seven truck races in 2007 but has been unable to secure funding since failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 in February.

Former Formula One driver Scott Speed appears to be the next, best chance for an open wheel driver to land a NASCAR ride after winning ARCA and truck series races this season, giving Red Bull its first stock car victory since entering the sport last year.

Franchitti said he would consider returning to IndyCars.

But as Castroneves said, in such different disciplines, the opportunity has to be nearly perfect. Stewart landed with a team that won a title the next season after he arrived, with Bobby Labonte, and helped him to championships in 2002 and 2005. Ganassi's stock car operation has never been able to replicate the success of his open wheel and sports car programs -- "knowing him as an owner, it must just tear him up because he's competitive," Wheldon said -- sparking speculation of just how good Montoya could be in more consistently competitive equipment.

It's a standard question for most making the pilgrimage to stock cars and eventually, Wheldon said, degrades the perception of open wheel drivers' skill.

"Dario is somebody I respect a lot. It's a shame that's happened to him," he said. "From an IndyCar driver's standpoint you want to see Dario succeed because I think [his leaving] makes the IndyCar drivers look bad. I think that's unfortunate but being injured (he missed five races with a broken ankle) didn't help him and Chip's cars aren't as competitive as his IndyCars right now, so it was a very difficult time for him."

A difficult time for anyone with wandering aspirations.

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