IRVING, Texas – IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti appears headed for NASCAR. Jacques Villeneuve, who won titles in two open-wheel series and the Indianapolis 500, is already making the transition and will run his first Truck Series race next week.
Juan Pablo Montoya, the former CART champ, Indy 500 winner and Formula One driver, is in his first season in the Nextel Cup Series. Three-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. has been racing part-time in the Busch Series.
“It shows how strong NASCAR is, how much fun the series is and where these guys really want to be,” two-time Nextel Cup champion and former IRL driver Tony Stewart said Thursday.
“I watch with great interest. I’m really curious to see how it does works out,” Jeff Burton said. “But it going to be a huge challenge.”
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It’s believed that Franchitti, who also won this year’s Indy 500, will join the Chip Ganassi Racing team. That would make him NASCAR teammates with Montoya, who beat Franchitti for the CART (now Champ Car) title in 1999 on a tiebreaker for most wins.
Montoya got his first Cup victory and had four top-10 finishes in the 26 races leading into NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, and was 20th in points. His first NASCAR victory was in the Busch race at Mexico in March.
Burton said having former F1 drivers like Villeneuve and Montoya provide NASCAR “instant worldwide recognition.” Villeneuve won F1 and CART titles.
“Immediately F1 fans around the world look at Cup in a different light,” Burton said.
“By Montoya not having a tremendous amount of success, what they’ve realized is that this is really hard. And Montoya winning shows NASCAR fans that we’re not the only good drivers in the world. It’s good for our sport.”
Burton and Stewart are among the 12 drivers in NASCAR’s Cup chase. They joined championship contenders Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch speaking by satellite in an event promoting Texas Motor Speedway, which in November hosts the third-to-last event in the 10-race chase.
Gordon said he spoke to Villeneuve during testing at Talladega and has heard all the talk about Franchitti’s possible move.
“I think it’s exciting, very cool,” said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion. “Juan Pablo obviously has brought a lot of attention to this sport. He’s a great talent. If you’re a talented driver, you can drive anything.
“A guy like Dario, I think it’s ambitious and so I applaud him for taking that step. I think he’s got a lot of talent, so he can pull it off.”
Among the biggest challenges facing the open-wheel drivers in the transition to NASCAR are the vastly different cars and the extended schedules.
Hornish, who has 19 wins and 80 top-10 finishes in his 116 IRL starts, has an average finish of 32nd in his eight Busch Series races (six this year). Hornish was fifth in the IRL standings this season.
The Nextel Cup Series has 36 races, 19 more than the IndyCar, F1 and Champ series ran this season.
“It’s really interesting. We think our schedules are too long and we have too many races,” Busch said.
“They are guys that we’re envious racing 18-20 times a year and now here they come. They’re coming over to our sport.”
Stewart was leading IRL’s first race at Texas in 1997 when he blew an engine with two laps left. He said his transition to NASCAR isn’t the same as what the other guys are going through now.
“My situation was a little different than some of these other guys from the standpoint, I really wasn’t an IndyCar driver, only ran three years full-time in the IRL before I came to NASCAR,” Stewart said.
“In all reality, I started in the Busch Series in 1996, the same year I started in the IRL. It’s not like I had my feet cemented. I was bouncing around.”