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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: Open-Wheel Drivers Becoming the Choice Du Jour Of NASCAR Owners… at the Expense of Everyone Else

On a lazy Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland, one of the most dramatic championships in open-wheel history had just reached an eye-popping conclusion, with the third turn of the last lap finally settling a battle that brought excitement to an all-time high. But the 2007 IRL trophy hadn’t even been dusted off for its rightful owner, Dario Franchitti, when he was asked the question most racing aficionados already had the answer to: Would he be moving to NASCAR? The Scotsman was noncommittal in his response, but just the hesitation in his voice revealed the answer he’s not yet able to say out loud: all indications are the open-wheel racer is on his way to the world of stock cars. According to published reports, a five-year offer from Chip Ganassi Racing has been put on the table, and sponsorship is in place for Franchitti to make the jump from IndyCar to a series with just a little different type of chassis.

Are you surprised by this? Don’t be. If it happens, Franchitti will be just the latest man to make the move over to fendered cars under the NASCAR sanctioning banner, continuing a recent trend of NASCAR owners wooing talent from the suffering world of open wheel. Jacques Villeneuve and Sam Hornish Jr. appear destined to make a similar switch to Nextel Cup for 2008; come 2009, Dan Wheldon and Patrick Carpentier will likely join them.

It’s not that these men are the first such drivers of their kind to blaze the trail into NASCAR; in the past few years, we’ve seen Paul Tracy, Sarah Fisher, AJ AllmendingerΒ and Juan Pablo Montoya all try and make the jump, encountering various degrees of success along the way. However, bringing such a large number of these men and women into NASCAR for full-time rides is unprecedented. With the numbers on the rise, this sudden influx of open-wheel talent into the sport begs nothing more than a simple question… why?

To figure out the answer, you have to take a look back at history. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, open-wheel stars would make nothing more than token appearances in NASCAR races, experiencing a large degree of success when doing so. AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti both won the Daytona 500, and Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock also took spins in full-bodied cars during their heydays. However, none of them stuck around to make the jump into the series on a full-time basis. Back then, there was a big difference in popularity compared to now; it was open-wheel cars that ruled the racing landscape, while NASCAR was nothing more than a regional curiosity for passionate fans from the South.

Even in those days, there were still many different forms of racing throughout the country, chock full of talented drivers just hoping for a chance to step up into a bigger series. But when it came to the places where that talent would be given a chance, there appeared to be a big divide. For years, the drivers that moved into the open-wheel racing of USAC, then CART, came from both the midget and sprint car series, while the drivers that moved into NASCAR were people who raced on the small local tracks that dotted the Southeast. As NASCAR grew into a national phenomenon, drivers began slowly moving up from outside of the Southeast region; but they were still for the most part stock car racers.

Many people point to Jeff Gordon‘s move into stock car racing from the sprint car ranks as the start of the movement changing that; however, he was definitely not the first to cross enemy lines. Cracks in this rigid process of picking drivers started forming in 1979; that year, Geoffrey Bodine made his NASCAR Cup debut, moving up from the modified ranks of the Northeast. (While the modified series is NASCAR-sanctioned, it is more like an open-wheel series than a stock car series). One year later, a far bigger jump was made; Tim Richmond came over from IndyCar in 1980 to begin his stock car racing career in Cup. Four years later, USAC’s latest and greatest sprint car champion, a Midwestern man named Ken Schrader, officially joined the party – giving stock car racing’s highest-level series a little spice of variety.

Of course, it took the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Gordon to completely turn the process of driver selection upside down. After a series of USAC successes in the early 1990s, Bill Davis put him in a Busch Series car, and by 1993, he was driving in the Cup Series for Rick Hendrick. The rest is history; by the time Gordon started racking up titles in the mid-1990s, car owners were scurrying left and right for the next sprint and midget car stars, collecting the likes of drivers like Tony Stewart during a flurry of free-agent activity. Ironically, NASCAR’s breakthrough coincided with the split of open-wheel racing into two rival leagues. The balance of power was shifting, and all of a sudden, the sport had its pick of drivers from pretty much any series it wanted.

The influx of sprint car drivers to NASCAR eventually died down in the early part of this decade, with the likes of Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne the last batch to experience extensive success. In its place, the owners began a new, more disturbing trend: looking for drivers that were barely old enough to drive legally. Now that the sport had no boundaries and no competition for the talent it wanted, owners were signing kids to development contracts as soon as they were seen turning fast laps at the local day care center. In fact, current NASCAR bad boy Kyle Busch actually forced the sport to implement an age limit, simply because he was so good – and brought up so fast – that he was running top-level equipment before he was even 18 years old.

But now, the “young gun” phase appears to be running its course a bit – owners are learning quickly that 20-something drivers tear up equipment as much as they triumph in victory lane. With experience needed for long-term success, it seems as though sponsors are no longer patient enough for the next young star to develop through the ranks and gradually move up to Cup. The end result is that these driver development programs remain in place, but owners are trying to find someone who can fill in immediately and keep their sponsors happy. Simply put, they have no choice.

And that brings us back to open wheel. While the driver development programs have clogged NASCAR’s minor leagues, both the IRL and Champ Car series see its talent breeze right to the top with little competition – leaving them ripe for the picking through far more lucrative stock car contracts. Early results have been mixed; in fact, Tracy and Fisher were disappointing in their attempts so far, they actually went back to open wheel. As far as those that stuck around, Allmendinger simply hasn’t had the opportunities to show his talent at the Cup level, although he’s been strong in several Busch starts this season. Then, there’s Montoya; just one year in, he’s clearly established himself, winning at the Cup level and currently leading the Rookie of the Year standings by a wide margin.

Even with those up and down careers, the results have been good enough to open the floodgates. Villeneuve and Franchitti will soon be joining this group, with several others clearly on their way over soon.

While this development shows no signs of stopping, it’s bad on a couple of different levels. First of all, there are thousands of drivers at the local level who put their heart and soul into trying to establish themselves as drivers in stock cars, hoping to be noticed and get a chance to move up into the upper echelon series in the country. But if owners are now going to look elsewhere for their drivers, are these local warriors just wasting their time learning how to drive stock cars? It certainly seems it; drivers with solid backgrounds in lower series, such as Danny O’Quinn, seem repeatedly cast aside in favor of the driver/sponsor packages offered by open wheel. That goes along with my second point: the drivers who are in the Busch and Truck series and have patiently waited for a chance to move up into Cup now appear as though they are being passed over by people with little to no stock car experience. While the Busch Series does not have an overabundance of young talent, there are certainly some drivers remaining who deserve a shot. But having Franchitti jump into a Cup ride almost immediately – all while having Villeneuve make just seven starts in the Truck Series before rising up to Cup – sends a very bad message to the drivers who have paid their dues… only to get nowhere fast.

It will be a travesty if the powers that be allow NASCAR to become overly inundated with open-wheel drivers moving into seats because of their past history elsewhere, current sponsorship connections or because the sponsor of the existing ride can’t be patient enough to allow a young stock car talent to evolve. We can only hope that cooler heads will prevail in the end, preventing the next true stock car talent from being passed over for… Marco Andretti.

But the way things are going, don’t count on it.

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