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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2008 Season Preview: Is There Another Juan Pablo Montoya in This Year’s Rookie Class?

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! Hard to believe that command to start the 2008 Sprint Cup season is just 10 days away… and counting.

But as fans anxiously anticipate the end of another offseason, it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of NASCAR. For the third straight year at Frontstretch, your favorite writers are previewing the upcoming 2008 season, providing a look into the good, the bad, and the ugly expected to face the sport in the next nine months. Over the next few days, we’ll get you thinking on six different questions we’ve been wondering about ourselves; and as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… good humor. After all, what good are predictions if we’re not understanding enough to realize we could wind up completely wrong?

So, without further ado, here’s Part 3 of our preview… and if you missed the first two parts, click the links below to catch up.

Part 1
Part 2

Today’s Season Preview Topic: After the success of Juan Pablo Montoya last season, the floodgates opened for a number of open-wheel stars to transition into the NASCAR ranks. But after a win and a top-25 points finish for Montoya in his rookie season, can any open-wheeler in the rookie class of 2008 duplicate that success – especially considering most of them have even less preparation time and stock car experience under their belts?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)

I think what happened at the Las Vegas test Monday said it all for the 2008 rookie class. No less than four rookies spun in testing – that’s right, testing – with open-wheel veterans Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. doing some serious damage to their machines.

While both those men have amazing resumes, neither appears ready to tackle NASCAR’s highest level. Heck, Hornish failed to qualify for over half the races he entered last year, and Franchitti is going into the season with zero Sprint Cup starts under his belt. Former Indy 500 and Formula 1 champ Jacques Villeneuve may actually be the most talented of the bunch; but unlike Montoya, he doesn’t have the funding of a multi-million dollar sponsor backing him, and it’s in question whether his team even has the money to continue beyond the first five races. And Patrick Carpentier? Please… one good race at your hometown track does not a Sprint Cup driver make.

The bottom line here is that this rookie class is going to be the worst since 1998, when Kenny Irwin Jr. took the ROTY award despite going winless and finishing 28th in Cup points. To be honest, I think it’s going to be tough for any of the rookies to even finish that high.

Kim DeHaven, Senior Editor (Tuesdays/Numbers Game)

The open wheelers’ racing accomplishments are quite impressive, but I don’t see any of them equaling the stock car success of Montoya. Wins and top-25 finishes don’t come easily these days, no matter who you are; and while all these drivers have the talent, none are driving what I consider to be top-notch equipment. If that wasn’t enough working against them, Carpentier and Villeneuve also have the gargantuan task of qualifying their way into the field each week – meaning they’re under additional pressure from the first practice laps at Daytona.

Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

I don’t think any of the former open wheel Rookie of the Year candidates will find the same success that Montoya did last season. Between Franchitti, Carpentier, Hornish and Villeneuve, only Villeneuve has a finish in the top 30 of any oval-track event – combined, they have just seven Sprint Cup starts between them. Of course, they will all garner attention on the two road courses, the only place where their experience can truly help them. If I had to choose, I think the two that will emerge from the pack are Hornish and Franchitti since they most recently ran in the IRL, which runs at some of the Sprint Cup Series venues; but honestly, don’t expect much.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)

The first question you have to ask is are any of these drivers of the caliber of Montoya? You really need to take a good look at who you are talking about. Franchitti and Hornish have nice resumes and good Cup teams (Hornish gets the edge on that), but it really doesn’t matter, as he has been less than stellar in stock cars so far. In the meantime, Franchitti will be driving for the same team as Montoya, so you’d be tempted to say, “Well, if Montoya can do it in that equipment, so can he.” However, I have not honestly seen enough of him in a stock car yet to judge how he’ll adapt. Villeneuve has a resume that bears a strong resemblance to Montoya’s, and he’s shown some potential of picking it up fast, too – but he’s at a disadvantage with the team he’s with. Last but not least, Carpentier is a great guy, but not quite on the level of the others; plus, Gillett Evernham is coming off a lousy season.

I just think that out of this bunch, when you study them in-depth you see Montoya has the most natural talent to start with, and also had a team decent enough to back him up. So, I just don’t expect the rest of these guys to be able to duplicate his feat; Montoya had just the right combination to make it work, and in each of the other cases, there’s something missing.

Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)

On paper, the open wheelers coming into the series can duplicate Montoya’s success – they are every bit as talented as many drivers on the circuit and among the best drivers in the world. However, it’s unlikely that any of them will have that chance. Franchitti has the best shot – he’s in the same equipment that Montoya won with last year – but the equipment most of the other open-wheel defectors will take over is second-tier at best. That will be a far bigger handicap than the learning curve…

Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)

I do not expect any of the open wheelers coming into the series in 2008 to equal, much less surpass, Montoya’s 2007 results. Montoya is simply a more talented driver than any of the ’08 rookie crop. A couple (Carpentier, Villeneuve) may give it a go on the road courses, but JPM is Tony Stewart-esque; he’ll wheel anything with success, no matter what the car is. I don’t think we have that type of talent in the incoming class – not someone who can be a winner immediately, anyway.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)

Success in one avenue of motorsport is no guarantee of success in a different discipline of the sport. Montoya is the exception, not the rule; and even he floundered at times last year, particularly early in the season. You know, it wasn’t that long ago that Cup owners thought they’d mined gold in the Featherlite Modified and Busch North series; at the time, drivers in those series were moving south and taking the wheel of premiere rides in Cup. With the possible exception of Geoffrey Bodine, that didn’t work out too well, did it?

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)

The short answer is NO. This open-wheel invasion is simply an extension of Brian France’s vision to capture the casual fan; now, we have the “casual driver.” All these drivers, Montoya included, drive for second-rate teams at best, with the Penske camp probably being the strongest for Hornish. However, Penske is making no friends whatsoever with the points transfer scam that they are pulling this year. In fact, when you think about it, the whole thing (the No. 2 owner points going to the No. 77 to lock Hornish in the first five races), it’s a clear indication of how little confidence the Penske camp has that the new No. 77 team can compete on its own merits.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer: (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

In two words: no chance. Montoya is an elite talent, and none of these drivers compare. It’s true that Villeneuve is a F1 champion; but that series is more about engineering than driving ability, and Bill Davis is not elite enough to overcome his rookie mistakes. Speaking of mistakes, Hornish has already proven that he is not ready to be at the front yet after going through the struggles he had last year. As for Carpentier, he has also shown that stock cars are a steep learning curve, one he’s not mastered quite yet. The only outside shot for a rookie win will be Franchitti on a road course; but even then, he’ll be hard pressed to beat his teammate Montoya to the checkered flag.

Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)

Popular writer Tommy Thompson couldn’t look into the crystal ball this year – he was too busy having a ball of his own getting married! Congratulations on your marriage, Tommy, from all the Frontstretch staff… to the fans, Tommy sends his regards and looks forward to returning to the fold next week!

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)

I was one of the biggest skeptics when Montoya moved to NASCAR. I thought his arrogance would overshadow his talent and end up hurting him; but boy, was I wrong! After his 2007 season, it’s hard to put guys like Carpentier, Hornish and Villeneuve on the same level, and it’s likely the expectations set forth by Montoya will prove higher than what any of the open wheelers will manage this season. One thing is for sure, though; they won’t have to work hard to have a better attitude on and off the track.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Voice Of Vito)

Consideration has to be given to who these open wheelers are and what teams they will be driving for. In particular, with the hire of Franchitti owner Chip Ganassi seems to be making the transition on his team from Good Ol’ Boys like Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer to a multi-national contingent of open-wheel aces. Now, Roger Penske is bringing his boy Hornish to fendered country, providing Indy 500 experience to a team once led by old school NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace.

It’s a big change; however, it’s hard to argue against this formula, and it makes it easier to sell sponsorship (Franchitti notwithstanding) when you have drivers who have won marquee events and championships in other series. Hornish and Franchitti are with top-flight organizations, but the wake of carnage left behind from Hornish’s early Busch Series efforts don’t engender much in the way of expectation from him in his rookie year. Franchitti probably stands to have the best shot at success, as he’s paired with Montoya, who now has a full year of NASCAR under his belt and is on equal footing in the CoT.

Mike Lovecchio, Senior Writer (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot And Who’s Not)

I just don’t see it. Guys like Villeneuve and Franchitti may have similar credentials as Montoya, but I don’t feel their teams are as focused as Chip Ganassi’s was last year at getting Montoya up to speed quickly. The Colombian may have been a rookie last season, but the No. 42 team was clearly Ganassi’s top car; Franchitti won’t have that same opportunity. Neither will his rookie compatriots; Bill Davis Racing will be more focused on keeping Dave Blaney inside the Top 35 then helping Villeneuve succeed, and with Gillett Evernham’s struggles last season, I don’t see Carpentier having the equipment to regularly finish in the top 20.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert (Mondays/Rookie Report)

Each one of these former open-wheel standouts are capable of stealing a road course win. As for the rest of the year, Hornish and Franchitti have the best shot at duplicating Montoya’s success because of the Top-35 owner points position that they are inheriting. We’ve seen in the past how easy it is to start out behind the 8-ball when a driver is not guaranteed a spot in the field; furthermore, once you fall behind, the snowball effect kicks in, and it’s difficult to dig out of that hole. Carpentier and Villeneuve will face uphill battles this season because of that.

Nikki Krone, Senior Writer (Fridays/David Starr Driver Diary)

I think Montoya is almost in a class by himself when you are talking about these incoming open-wheel guys. Stock cars have probably been the biggest transition of Montoya’s career, so I was really surprised he did as well as he did in his first season. But now, he has shown that not only can he win regardless of what he’s driving, but he can kick some butt doing it, too.

I think it’s definitely going to be harder for the other guys to follow that, and I don’t expect anyone to burst on the scene the way that Montoya did. Not to say that these other drivers aren’t extremely talented and deserving of the opportunity… I just think it’s going to be very difficult.

S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)

I don’t think so. Even Montoya’s success was sporadic, and his talent was sorely tested by ovals where side-by-side racing never let up. None of the incoming open-wheel class looks comfortable around these monstrous stock cars; this might be an extremely talented rookie class, but they have a steeper learning curve compared to the young men who climbed NASCAR’s developmental system. As a result, I predict a great many wrecked cars and bruised egos to come…