2008 Ride: No. 40 Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge
2008 Primary Sponsors: Target, Fastenal, The Hartford, Kennametal, Wrigley’s, Dodge
2008 Owners: Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates
2008 Crew Chief: Steven Lane
Stats: 10 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 0 poles, 2 DNQs, 49th in points
Best Finish: 22nd — Martinsville, spring
High Point: It’s tough to say, really, with NASCAR already in the rear-view mirror for the debonair Scot with the stunning movie star wife, Ashley Judd. The honest truth is that there simply wasn’t a high point in his brief foray into stock car racing.
Low Point: The Nationwide Series crash with Larry Gunselman at Talladega Superspeedway that fractured Dario Franchitti’s left ankle in April. The time the rookie spent out of his Cup car — six weeks — proved the premature death knell on his nascent NASCAR career.
Summary: It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the 2007 Indy 500 and IRL champion; out before the Cup Series was halfway through was certainly not the preseason script.
Franchitti won the Rolex 24 with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas and came into the 2008 season with solid expectations for a good rookie campaign and a spirited battle for Rookie of the Year honors. But it just wasn’t to be and all told, Franchitti ran just 10 races at the Sprint Cup level, with an average finish of 34th and one lap led under caution at Fontana.
Simply put, Franchitti was more a victim of timing than necessarily a lack of driving talent. Rather, he was undone by the tough economic times, associated sponsor woes, and the ongoing struggles for performance at Chip Ganassi Racing. The irony is Franchitti survived two flips: first at Michigan: and then again the following week at Kentucky during the 2007 IRL season.
Those brushes with serious injury helped cause Franchitti’s move to NASCAR. Yet at a bad old track in Alabama, it was a hard crash in a stock car that took him out of the driver’s seat for weeks. Franchitti returned at Pocono, promptly wrecked, and finished 41st. The following week, he finished dead last at Michigan when his engine expired after just 30 laps. Being one of only four drivers who failed to qualify for the road course at Sonoma was the final straw. The Scot finished 38th at Loudon, and that was that as Chip Ganassi took preventative measures and shut down the No. 40 team for the year.
At the start of the season, Lowe’s Motor Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, a four-decade veteran of NASCAR, said of Franchitti, “…And it’s not going to take him any longer to have success than Montoya. People love celebrities, and they help make our sport bigger and better.” While this may be in part the sort of hyperbole you’d expect from a proper promoter, there were many who agreed with those sentiments. Franchitti was not expected to excel right off the bat, but a solid 20-something place finish in the points with a sprinkling of top fives and top 10s would probably have been the target.
Overall, it’s fair to say we never really saw the best of Franchitti in NASCAR; although in any other time, he might just have made it stick. Look for him to rebound well in 2009 in a format he’s more familiar with.
Team Ranking: Not technically applicable – worst of a bad bunch.
Off Track News: How the producers of Trackside Live persuaded the genial Scot that a Guitar Hero live stage performance in the middle of fans was a good idea, I’ll never know. Perhaps, it had just got to the stage where any kind of sponsor plug was being considered. Elliott Sadler, as you would expect, killed him, but the Scot put aside his embarrassment and more than held his own. Come to think of it, maybe this was the high point?
2009 Outlook: Franchitti will return to the IRL series for 2009. He’ll drive the No. 10 Target/Ganassi car, replacing Dan Wheldon and leaving NASCAR behind.
Quote: “I have really enjoyed this last season in stock cars and have not completely closed that chapter of my professional career, but the opportunity that arose was just something I could not pass up… I am really looking forward to getting behind the wheel of one of those Target cars and be a teammate to Scott Dixon.”
2007 Frontstretch Grade: N/A.
2008 Grade: F.