NASCAR

April 20, 2008

Tough Circles
For Indy racing stars Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., the NASCAR learning curve has been a steep one

JUST A few months ago Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. were the kings of open-wheel racing in America. Between them they had won four of the last seven IndyCar Series titles and the last two Indy 500s. They were on the fast track to becoming their generation's Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears—Franchitti, the dashing Scot married to actress Ashley Judd; Hornish, a native of tiny Defiance, Ohio, the classic Midwestern racer made good. And then they left the IndyCar Series in the off-season, lured by the lucre and the spotlight of NASCAR. Now, through the first eight races on the Sprint Cup circuit, something not entirely unexpected has happened: Franchitti and Hornish have excelled ... at finishing 20th or worse. Neither will be sniffing a championship, or even a win, anytime soon in a stock car. So much for high expectations.

"Other than having an engine and four tires, there is nothing in common between an Indy car and these stock cars," says Hornish, 28, who drives for Penske Racing. "I've had to throw out everything I knew about driving and start over."

Adjusting to the heavier stock car has been a struggle for both Hornish, currently 33rd in points, and Franchitti, 38th. When they would pilot a 1,500-pound open-wheel Indy car at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), for instance, Hornish and Franchitti never had to brake in the turns; they merely lifted off the gas, and the car would stick to the bottom groove of the track as if on a rail. A typical lap would be about 22 seconds. On Saturday night at PIR in the Subway Fresh Fit 500, Hornish and Franchitti (and every other driver) had to brake vigorously before each turn. Once they were in the turn, the back ends of their 3,400-pound cars would slide up the track. Both drivers felt on the verge of crashing on nearly every lap—which took about 29 seconds to complete.

"I expected this to be hard, but not quite like this," says Franchitti, 34. "The problem is that I'm trying to learn while going against guys who are the best in the world at this. I've got a lot of work to do."

Franchitti does enjoy one advantage over Hornish: His teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing is former Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who late in 2006 switched from open-wheel Formula One racing to the Cup circuit. It was Montoya's relative success in '07—he won a race and finished 20th in the points—that helped persuade Franchitti and Hornish to jump to NASCAR. Now Montoya is mentoring Franchitti, who like Hornish says he has no regrets about leaving the Indy series, and the two teammates meet several times each weekend to discuss matters such as braking points and lines around the track.

Clearly there's plenty more studying to be done. Last Saturday night at PIR the former IndyCar champs once again floundered, as Hornish finished 20th while Franchitti came in 32nd. But it's still far too early to dismiss their attempts to make it in NASCAR. "Dario and Sam need to get experience in stock cars; it's that simple," says Montoya, currently 17th in points. "These cars might look easy to drive on television, but they're not, especially when you come from our background."

ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's pre- and postrace Cup analysis.

Winner's Circle

It wasn't quite as dramatic as the Miami Dolphins' 13-game winless streak last season, but Hendrick Motorsports' inability to reach Victory Lane over the first seven races of the season was the talk of the garage before last Saturday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix. Well, that talk has been silenced. Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson (right) won the race to move from sixth to fourth in the standings. Last year, when Hendrick drivers took 18 of the 36 checkered flags, the team tended to win races in bunches, and Hendrick now looks poised to go on another roll. Next on the schedule is the Aaron's 499 on April 27 at Talladega, where Hendrick drivers have won the last four Cup events.

PHOTOASP PHOTO/RUSSELL LABOUNTY (CARS)GEAR SHIFT Hornish (top and 77 car) and Franchitti (40) have had trouble handling heavier stock cars. PHOTOAP PHOTO/MATT SLOCUM (HORNISH)[See caption above] PHOTOASP PHOTO/JARED C. TILTON (FRANCHITTI)[See caption above] PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)