And with that, the Open Wheel Invasion has ended. If you’re wondering about the “that” of which I speak, it’s Chip Ganassi Racing’s announcement that Dario Franchitti will return to full-time IRL competition in 2009 — leaving behind Sprint Cup aspirations that lasted all of half a season.
Yes, I know a few drivers whose past is rooted in dirt will still make their way up the ranks in full-bodied stock cars on occasion, but the Big Boys — those who were established IRL and Formula 1 stars, even champions — will most likely be staying in their respective series. How do I know? How could I make such a proclamation? The hirings of David Stremme, Casey Mears, and Reed Sorenson, that’s how.
With Penske Racing’s announcement that Stremme will fill the seat of the No. 12 Dodge vacated by Ryan Newman, coupled with Mears’ placement in RCR’s fourth team and Sorenson’s transfer to Gillett Evernham Motorsports, we see that three pretty high-profile seats (one being with a Big Four powerhouse team) were given to drivers who have combined for a grand total of one career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. In fact, in 378 career Cup starts, the trio has combined for only 17 top-five finishes. 17! If that’s the case, the question has to be asked: what’s so appealing about them?
They’re stock car drivers.
There is no learning curve, no transition, no language barrier with these guys. With money tight and sponsorship on the line, today’s car owner needs a guy who doesn’t have to learn on the job — but one that will drive the car into the Top 35 and keep it there.
Just one year ago, with Juan Pablo Montoya fresh off an Infineon win, names like Patrick Carpentier, Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jacques Villeneuve were being thrown around as heir apparents to vacant seats up and down pit road. But Villeneuve’s run never quite got off the ground, Franchitti’s team was dissolved after a best effort of 22nd in 10 starts, Hornish finds himself on the outside looking in at a Top-35 spot — even after an owner points swap, and Carpentier is out at Gillett Evernham Motorsports at season’s end (if not before). Just as soon as we were learning how to pronounce their names… these guys are gone.
So yes, the Stremme, Mears, and Sorenson hires are telling. Sure, sponsors want big names to fill the seat of their car, but what’s the point of shilling out $25 million if the best a past IRL or F1 champion can produce is a 22nd-place finish? Not that the aforementioned trio can do any better — as their track records show, they’re hardly contending on a weekly basis — but the car owners can’t have it any other way. They simply can’t afford to take a chance on an open-wheel driver who — while he may have talent — is unproven within the parameters of a full-bodied stock car.
This brings us to question No. 1 this week…
Q: Hi Matt! My question is about Franchitti. I can’t say I was surprised to see him not perform well in his first season. Not that Dario isn’t a great driver… he is, just not in NASCAR. My question is, do you think Chip Ganassi pulled the trigger too early on Franchitti, or did he want to go back to open-wheel anyway? I think with a season or two in the Nationwide Series, he could have made a decent stock car driver. Thanks! — The3forLife
A: No, I don’t think Ganassi pulled the trigger too early. When sponsorship is drying up because the results aren’t there, a car owner oftentimes has no other choice than to pull up the jack stands and move on. Of course, I don’t think this was all Chip Ganassi’s doing, either.
Franchitti had shown flashes in 14 Nationwide Series starts this season, but he did not make a career-altering move to stock cars to race on the Triple-A level. Getting to learn the ropes on the junior circuit was understandable, but once the major league ride dried up, Franchitti had no interest in making a two- or three-year transition via the Nationwide Series.
Honestly, I can’t say I blame him. I mean, for the love of traction control, he’s an IRL champion! Go with what works.
Q: Matt, I’m glad you wrote about the bad decision by NASCAR to not award the Labor Day date back to Darlington last week. I agree with you 100%! But there is another problem I thought NASCAR would fix but didn’t: Putting an open weekend between the Richmond race and the first Chase race.
This weekend might make NASCAR rearrange the schedule again, because if that hurricane hits Virginia and makes its way inland, just right there is going to be some real problems with the race. Another change that seems so obvious to a legion of fans, but NASCAR can’t see it themselves. —Tommy
A: Tommy, you’re right. We could have some major issues this weekend… or then again, all could go off according to plan. I was on the Gulf Coast last week and was supposedly dodging a tropical storm, but when push came to shove, I saw all of four hours worth of rain out of it. You know how the weather is.
As for the latest stormy phenomenon — Tropical Storm Hanna — NASCAR and officials from Richmond International Raceway are monitoring the situation closely. But a weekend’s worth of rain that could stretch the event’s start time into Tuesday would have serious ramifications.
As for an off-date after Richmond and before the New Hampshire race, I couldn’t agree more that week’s the optimal spot for it. But NASCAR saw fit to squeeze one of them in two weekends prior to that for the 2009 schedule, so at least we have an open weekend to make up most regular season races before the Chase. However, staging the transfer race into the Chase during hurricane season just 50 miles from the coast seems reason enough to follow your lead, Tommy.
Q: Joey Logano makes his Cup debut this weekend and he has to qualify in on time. Beyond that, what do you realistically think we can expect from him in his first race against the Cup guys? — Nate Paulsin
A: Realistically? Well, Logano did pretty well in his Nationwide debut, but this is a whole other stratosphere. I’d say the absolute best we’re looking at is a 20th-place run. That may be optimistic, too. Not to say the kid isn’t ready, because if Joe Gibbs says he is and The Home Depot is still willing to write some fat checks, who am I to argue?
I don’t think he’ll have any problems making the race, either. So long as qualifying isn’t rained out, that is…
And finally — since we didn’t get a chance to discuss Bristol here last week — I thought I’d end one in Thunder Valley:
Q: I think it’s hilarious that Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards get “probation” for the post-race dustup at Bristol. I mean, what is probation anyway? It’s never meant anything and won’t again this time. I guess that is a good thing, because neither deserved a penalty in the first place. After all, it’s Bristol, man! What would a good Bristol finish be without some cooldown lap fireworks? Maybe Richmond or Martinsville will bring us the same thing! — James J.
A: Personally, I like when NASCAR slaps the probation penalty on a couple of those monkeys. It’s the sanctioning body’s way of saying, “Boys, we have to do something although we don’t really want to… so consider yourselves on probation and keep up the good work.”
And you’re right, James — it’s Bristol, man!