Indy champion Dario Franchitti and former F/1 star Jacques Villeneuve are leading the latest invasion of NASCAR
This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2007 issue
THE TWO sweat-soaked drivers stood 30 feet apart in the garage at Talladega Superspeedway last Friday evening, each surrounded by television cameras and tape recorders. Never before in the 54-year history of the ARCA RE/MAX Series—the Double A of NASCAR—had there been so much interest in a race. Then again, there had never been an ARCA event like the one at 'Dega, in which two future key players in the Cup series made their stock car debuts.
Neither Dario Franchitti nor Scott Speed was particularly impressive in the race—Franchitti finished 17th, while Speed was seventh—but that was not the point. This was all about seat time. Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, had turned only 30 laps in a stock car before Friday, and his inexperience showed: He struggled getting in and out of his pit, he was slow on restarts, and he never felt comfortable in the draft. Still, the 34-year-old native of Edinburgh, Scotland, is the early favorite to be voted Cup rookie of the year next season, when he'll pilot the number 40 Dodge for Chip Ganassi and become the first European-born driver to compete full time in the 59-year history of the series.
Ganassi has had success this season with Juan Pablo Montoya, whom he wooed from Formula One last summer. Montoya is the leading rookie in the Cup series, and he'll be Franchitti's mentor. "The biggest difference between open-wheel racing and stock car racing is that these cars are heavier and they don't slow down like open-wheel cars," says Montoya. "But Dario's a proven winner, and he's going to get everything figured out quickly."
Franchitti's move to NASCAR is a blow to the struggling IndyCar series. He has as much star power as any driver on the IndyCar circuit not named Danica—he is married to actress Ashley Judd, after all—but his jump to stock cars is no surprise; it's in line with a trend that has reshaped the U.S. motor sports landscape over the last decade. Many of NASCAR's established leaders defected from the open-wheel ranks (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman) but never in such numbers. That's because the exposure and money in NASCAR are greater than ever. Along with Franchitti and Speed, who spent the past two years in F/1, Sam Hornish Jr. (a three-time IndyCar champ) and Jacques Villeneuve (the 1996 F/1 champ, who made his Cup debut on Sunday at Talladega, finishing 21st) are both considering driving stock cars full time next season.
"They are all great talents," says Gordon, "[but] it takes time to learn the tracks, the cars and the competition. If you have patience, it'll pay off." Speed is taking Gordon's advice and is on a slower track to the Cup series than Franchitti. Speed plans to compete in all of the ARCA races next season as well as in a handful of Busch Series events. He'll likely be ready for a Cup ride with Red Bull Racing in 2009.
So who was the big winner at Talladega? Someone who wasn't even there: Brian France, the chairman of NASCAR, whose pool of talented drivers just got deeper.
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1 On Sunday at Talladega, Jeff Gordon (right) won, and Jimmie Johnson took second. The Hendrick Motorsports duo has pulled away from the rest of the Chasers (Gordon leads Johnson by nine points; Clint Bowyer is third, 63 points back), and it looks like a two-man sprint to the Cup.
2 Also at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew an engine for the sixth time this year. He finished 40th. After the race his crew chief at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Tony Eury Jr., moved to Hendrick to prepare for Little E's arrival in the off-season. Without Eury, it seems likely that Junior, who has yet to reach Victory Lane in '07, will go winless for the first time since 1999.