DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A few years ago, Dario Franchitti would have been viewed as a novelty, an open-wheel racer just looking to make a quick in-and-out splash at NASCAR’s most prestigious event.
Now he’s the norm. Now he is here to stay.
Franchitti is one of four Indy 500 champions expecting to qualify this weekend for the Daytona 500, shifting gears and making a jump that he once thought never would be possible.
“It’s kind of amazing that I got this chance,” Franchitti said Thursday during an interview at the Daytona International Speedway.
“It’s not like I was unhappy at Indy or with the series. It was just a chance, a wonderful opportunity, to try something new.”
Franchitti, 34, won the 2007 Indy 500, an accomplishment as big as any in racing. He is here alongside Sam Hornish Jr. (2006 Indy winner), Jacques Villeneuve (1995 Indy winner) – both veteran open-wheel drivers in their first full NASCAR season – and Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 Indy 500 winner), who became Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year in 2007.
Franchitti, who was born in Scotland, will drive a Dodge Avenger for Chip Ganassi Racing, becoming the first European driver to join NASCAR’s premier series full time.
“Indy and Daytona are the biggest races in their respective series, both world famous races. Both are massive. I know what it feels like to win one of them,” he said.
“I’d really like to know what it feels like to win the other.”
He is forfeiting the chance to defend the Indy 500 title in May – he’ll be driving in the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte that day – but he is part of a continuing trend in NASCAR’s growing appeal.
“It will be an odd feeling, to not go back and defend,” he said. “Some days I feel OK about that, and some days I’m more upset, but getting the chance here makes me realize it was time to make the move.”
While winning the Indy Car Series championship last season, he also made four starts in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and one start in the Craftsman Truck Series, just enough to give him a taste of what to expect in 2008.
He talked at length with several drivers before making the full-series commitment to NASCAR.
He never thought it would be easy, but he also never thought it would be quite so difficult as he discovered last year, and in testing last month, in Las Vegas and California. He talked at length with several drivers before making the full-series commitment to NASCAR. Hornish was one of those who emphasized how difficult the transition might be.
“I talked to a lot of people, and received a lot of encouragement. When he (Hornish) told me how difficult it was going to be, I listened, but I’m not sure I really believed him,” he said. “Then as soon as I got into the car, I said, ‘Darn, Sam was right.' "
Making the transition from the high-tech open wheel cars to the bulkier harder-to-handle stock cars, where bumping and aggressiveness is often rewarded, will continue to be a learning experience, even for an accomplished driver like Franchitti.
To most NASCAR fans, his biggest claim to fame is that he is married to actress Ashley Judd. He could change that quickly with a strong showing at the Daytona 500.
“I’m not coming in here saying, ‘This is my first race, and I’m going to win it.’ I understand how difficult this is going to be,” he said. “But I came in with the idea of being successful, too.”