HAMPTON, Ga. – Dario Franchitti may have bolstered his cred with the good ol’ boys by getting penalized for rough driving. He’s still got a long way to go before he can even think about winning a stock car race.
The Indianapolis 500 winner quickly discovered just how much of a learning curve he faces in the leap from high-tech, open-wheel machines to these bulky, hard-to-handle cars with fenders and windshields.
Already this month, Franchitti finished far back in three different forms of racing that are serving as a warm-up for a full-time Cup ride in 2008. He placed 17th in an ARCA race at Talladega, 33rd in trucks at Martinsville and 32nd in a Busch Series event at Memphis this past weekend.
It’s a different world for the 38-year-old Scotsman, who captured a series championship and a win in the biggest race of all on the IndyCar circuit this season.
“I certainly don’t expect it to be easy,” Franchitti said Tuesday, taking a break from testing at Atlanta Motor Speedway and trying to make himself heard over the roar of the husky stock-car engines. “I’m under no illusions about how difficult this challenge is going to be. That’s why I wanted to do it.”
He’s shown the same knack for speed that he had in Indy cars, qualifying third for his Busch Series debut. But after he rammed Brandon Miller during the race, NASCAR officials held up Franchitti for a lap as a penalty for aggressive driving. He had another brush, as well, before hobbling across the finish line, three laps behind winner David Reutimann.
“I was pleasantly surprised with the pace we showed in Memphis,” Franchitti insisted. “But we had the brake problem. I’m not going to say that we ran out of brakes, but we had a braking issue that caused me to hit the 77. Other than that, we would have had a really good finish that day.”
Did Franchitti just call a driver by his number instead of his name? Maybe this move will work out after all.
Franchitti smirked a bit when asked if getting penalized might bolster his reputation and earn him a bit of respect in this rough-and-tumble form of racing, where trading paint and riding on another car’s back bumper is all part of the game.
That might sound good, but he really wasn’t trying to run into the 77 uh, Miller.
“I didn’t mean to hit the guy at all,” Franchitti said. “I jumped on the brakes. They went to the floor, and that was it.”
During two days of testing at the high-speed, mile-and-a-half oval south of Atlanta, he got a chance to drive the “Car of Tomorrow” and struggled to get up to speed – a striking change for a guy who was used to going more than 200 mph in an Indy car.
During his first run Monday, Franchitti was 42nd out of 52 drivers at 180.928 mph, more than 5 mph slower than the fastest car driven Kyle Busch. In the afternoon, Franchitti dropped off to 52nd out of 57 cars at 179.400.
On Tuesday morning, more of the same. He picked up his speed (182.075) but was 46th of 54 cars that got on the track. In the afternoon, a fast lap of 180.392 left him 33rd out of 46 cars.
“The biggest thing I’m getting used to is finding the limit to this car,” Franchitti said. “The car moves around quite a bit more than what I’m used to. The next project is to get used to that. It’s kind of like jumping off in the deep end. This is one of the fastest tracks, and I’ve never driven the COT or a Cup car. It’s certainly been a learning experience.”
The influx of non-American drivers that started this year with Juan Pablo Montoya will gain more traction in 2008, when Franchitti and two more former open-wheel drivers, Canadians Jacques Villeneuve (a former world champion in Formula One) and Patrick Carpentier, are set to join the Cup series.
“I view it as a flattering commentary on our sport that other forms of drivers want to come here,” said Jeff Burton, who also was testing in Atlanta. “These are drivers who had an opportunity to do things in other types of racing, but they elected to come do this.”
Franchitti was lured from Indy cars by Chip Ganassi, who was encouraged by the progress Montoya showed in his rookie season. The Colombian earned his first win on the road course at Sonoma and was runner-up in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
Now, he’ll be teammates with Franchitti, who undoubtedly will spend plenty of time in Montoya’s hauler, picking his brain for any tidbits that might ease the transition.
“It’s very helpful to have him on the team when I’ll be going through the same thing,” Franchitti said. “He’s just done a terrific job this year. Now, having driven the car, I realize what an impressive job he’s done.”
With the stock car season winding down, Franchitti soon can look forward to some R&R. But not much. There’s plenty of work to do between now and the start of a new season, less than four months away in Daytona.
“I see a lot of testing in my future,” he quipped. “That’s going to be about it. Maybe I’ll have some time off, but it’s mainly going to be a lot of testing.”