TALLADEGA, Ala. – It took Dario Franchitti less than a straightaway to know he was in foreign territory Friday at Talladega Superspeedway.
The reigning IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner saw the green flag wave for the start of Friday’s ARCA RE/MAX 250, his stock car debut, and immediately ran out of room on the high-banked 2.66-mile oval.
“You can’t pass on the left in this kind of racing like you can in IndyCar and people checked up in front of me on the start and I had nowhere to go,” Franchitti said, grinning. “That was my first learning experience and it continued all day.”
The 34-year-old Scot, driving his first race for new employer Chip Ganassi, managed to stay out of trouble throughout the 94-lap event and wound up 17th.
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“It was a lot of fun out there,” he said. “I’m disappointed with the result. But what I’ve learned, I don’t think you can put a price on it. I learned so much today. I’m looking at the long game, I’m looking at next year.”
The Scot, who signed a multiyear contract Wednesday to replace David Stremme in Ganassi’s No. 40 Cup entry, had never even sat in a stock car until earlier this week.
Franchitti qualified sixth Thursday but had to start from the rear of the 41-car field after his crew changed the engine in his No. 42 Dodge. He was 36th by the end of the first lap and got as high as eighth before falling back into the pack.
“That was probably because I really messed up the first pit stop,” he said. “That was the biggest mistake I made all day. I let the (engine revs) get too low and couldn’t get the car turning when I got to my pit.
“Then there’s a point there when I got in the right lane (in the draft) every time and a point when I got in the wrong line every time. That’s just experience.”
It was not quite as stirring a debut as another former open-wheel star and new teammate Juan Pablo Montoya’s third-place run in this same race last year. But Franchitti, who next season will be the first European to race in NASCAR’s top series full-time, wasn’t complaining.
“I’m relieved I didn’t do anything stupid, definitely,” Franchitti said. “I’m really happy with what I learned. I’m disappointed with the result. But it’s a start. From now until the start of next season is a very intensive learning period, and then it’s going to start all over again.
“It’s a funny position to be in when you’ve done 11 years of open-wheel racing over here in Champ Car and IndyCar and you come back and do something completely different. It’s been a while since I’ve been in this position. It’s fun.”
Montoya, who came to stock car racing from Formula One, went on from this event to race in several NASCAR Busch Series races and make his Cup debut at the end of last season before moving to Cup full-time in February. Franchitti, expected to do the same kind of apprenticeship, said he doesn’t know what’s next.
“I’m going to stay here this weekend and just get on the radio and listen to the Cup guys and ask a lot of questions,” he said. “Next week, I think the team will decide what we’re going to do.”
Franchitti was outshone on Friday by another open-wheel refugee, Scott Speed, who finished seventh in his first stock car start.